East is East has come on a journey with the same circularity of its name; from stage to 1999 Brit-flick to the stage again. Originally developed with the Tamasha Theatre Company in 1996, Ayub Khan-Din’s narrative is a closely autobiographical comedy set in the 1970s Salford of his childhood. This production brings out a claustrophobia that’s missing in the film, and rehabilitates its domestic tyrant of a father in an intimate, wry look through his family’s net curtains.
On film, East is East slotted neatly into the cultural moment where British Asian culture flooded the mainstream, with ‘Brimful of Asha’ on the radio, Goodness Gracious Me on the TV and appropriated bindis adding shimmer to gaudy club regalia. Seen on stage, it has a quieter glimmer, and its easier to draw comparisons with Shelagh Delaney’s Taste of Honey and its nearly-Manchester growing pains.
Tom Scutt’s design emphasises this setting by building a grimy red-brick tenement backyard, solid and symmetrical as a Factory Records album cover. But most of the action is confined to a pristine 1970s living room, complete with antimacassars on green-patterned sofas. Together with the kitchen, and the Formica-countered family chip shop, it traps six squabbling teenagers in uneasy tension. They share beds, the complications of a half-British half-Pakistani heritage, and scrubbing and frying duties with equal numbers of complaints.
The five boys are completely distinct without being caricatures – rebellious art school kid, swaggering greaser, parka-wearing bundle of neuroses, devout nerd and oldest son, desperate to do the right thing. Amit Shah’s performance as Abdul is particularly moving, as he tries desperately to find a shred of respect or sympathy under his father’s hard authoritarian shell.
Jane Horrocks’ Ella is a reluctant gatekeeper, caught between her children’s determination to be British and her husband’s insistence that they’re Pakistani. Horrocks’ warm, believable performance has a surprising edge to it: she’s all fierceness and fag ash-dropping insouciance in the face of her unruly, impossible family. She’s an engaging double act with Sally Bankes, playing her friend Annie – like two sulky teenagers at a bus stop, they taunt and fear her husband George by turns.
But Sally’s the only non-family member in the play; the film added Emma, Tariq’s secret girlfriend, her bigoted grandfather, and her friend Ruth to emphasise the cultural clash with the more-often seen outside world. Here, forays out of the house and shop are only described, not seen. This domestic focus softens George from tyrannical dictator to troubled transplant, desperately clinging to a Pakistani community that reject him for marrying Ella. And also, perhaps, by the poignancy of playwright Ayub Khan Din playing a part influenced by his relationship with his own father. With real sincerity, he justifies pushing his children into arranged marriages by explaining how, with faith, his children are as good as any other Muslims. The production is saturated with news from Pakistan, on the radio or television – stark political context for his failure to engage with his own children.
But in a post-multiculturalism world with a tighter, more critical focus on arranged marriages and honour killings, George’s desperation to marry his children off looks less forgivable. And the soft-focus Islam that they largely shrug off has changed, too, as a hysterical media casts going to mosque as a rebellion than going off to art school.
Directed by Sam Yates, this is a brilliantly funny production, poking fun at teenage pretensions, their casual sibling violence, and George’s bizarre market buys including a dentist chair for the living room. The family’s absurdities are highlighted in ruthless fluorescent strip lighting, but nearly twenty years on this chip shop looks a little less cheerful, but still more necessary.