“You not need to know my bloody business, missus”
There’s much indeed to love about East is East, the 1996 Ayub Khan Din play that was later made into a successful film (albeit one I have yet to catch), not least in the return of the remarkable Jane Horrocks to the stage and another of Tom Scutt’s impressive sets, marking him as one of the most interesting designers working in UK theatre at the moment. The play itself came at what could be considered a watershed moment in cultural representations of British Asians but given what has happened in the 20 or so years that have passed since its writing, it is interesting to consider how it stacks up now against today’s society.
The tale is an autobiographical one – Khan Din was himself part of a large family from Salford with a white British mother and a Pakistani father and a thinly disguised version of this household is what he puts on stage. It’s 1971 and George’s overbearing paterfamilias is keen for his seven children to respect and revere their sub-continental heritage, especially at a time when East Pakistan was fighting for its independence. He’s appalled that his children consider themselves more British than Asian though and have no respect for the customs he would impose upon them, especially in the arranged marriages he tries to secure for the family.
What additionally makes Sam Yates’ production spectacular is that Khan Din is playing George, the barely fictionalised representation of his father in all his complex frustrated rage and fury, a deeply moving portrayal that brings such nuance to a man who could so easily be demonised and dismissed as an autocratic wife-beater. Instead we come to realise the fear with which he would rule is his own fear of being left behind, of becoming his own father. And whilst our sympathies automatically go to Horrocks’ highly pragmatic Ella, we’re never in any doubt as to the depth of emotion that holds them together, even if their kids can’t understand why she doesn’t leave him.
Those kids are also excellent by the way, from the shyness of Michael Karim’s youngest Sajit through the sparkiness of Taj Atwell’s Meenah – the only girl – to Ashley Kumar’s wannabe heartthrob, the way these siblings rub each other up is heartening and hilarious, we so quickly get so fully engaged in their fates that it is nigh on impossible to not get caught up in the emotional ties that bind them all. Scutt’s design of terraced houses and flexible proppage adds to a recognisable feel that variations of the family dramas here are played out in houses across the nations and across the ages, and all with an Auntie Annie passing comment from the corner of the room! A hugely worthwhile revival.