Reviews Published 10 October 2021

Review: East is East at National Theatre

Let the good times roll: Frey Kwa Hawking writes about Birmingham Rep and National Theatre’s celebratory 25th anniversary staging of East is East.

Frey Kwa Hawking

Sophie Stanton and Tony Jayawardena in ‘East Is East’. Photo: Pamela Raith

Happy twenty-fifth, East is East! We’re the same age, but let’s face it, you’re an institution – no, I mean it. And have been for years. Since, like, Cool Britannia. That’s how we know each other, actually, if you remember, my family loved you through your 1999 film (one of Film4’s less pasty efforts). Like a lot of families, you reminded us of us. But before then, even. The way you were embraced in your first iteration, a co-production between Tamasha and the Royal Court and the Birmingham Rep. No, it’s not surprising how often you’re sought out since. You’re that friend we like to see ourselves with and in, as a nation. You’re someone we want to know.

It’s fitting that this new Birmingham Rep bash for you has wound up here, on the National Theatre’s stage. Though it’s kind of hard to believe I haven’t seen you here before, decked out and brimming with people who want to experience and celebrate you.

Let’s take a good look at you then, on your night. Ayub Khan Din’s script, following the Khan family in Salford in the 1970s, still lands the laughs – I don’t think it’s just fondness. Dodging their overbearing Pakistani father George (Tony Jayawardena) the Khan teenagers are unruly puppies, kept in vague formation by their white English mother Ella (Sophie Stanton). The younger actors are charming and distinct, having a lot of fun with the classic illicit bacon-cooking sessions, and mercilessly ripping into each other. Susan Kulkarni’s costume design makes the most of Gurjeet Singh’s foppish Tariq, going to town on the shirts, belts and flares.

Noah Manzoor is a guest of honour as Sajit, the youngest and weirdest kid: scuttling around in his reeking parka, mocked for his twitching, hiding tendencies, and the one most privy to George’s physical outbursts against Ella. Iqbal Khan’s celebration of you feels more confident in the humour: Rachel Lumberg’s Auntie Annie is the drollest of delights, sharing tea and fags with Ella, grim and unflappable. The horrible parts of the story feel more raced through, despite the steel and strength Stanton brings to Ella and Jayawardena’s ability to flip between bluster and pathetic menace.

This East is East careens from hilarity to domestic violence and back again. It doesn’t allow for sitting in and really feeling the unease of the moments which are not quite either – the reality of having to live with a parent who’s abusive, watching out for each other, trying to somehow keep at an equilibrium, which takes such a toll on Ella. The quieter moments are minimised: the aftermath of a fight, or George crying in their chip shop alone after running in to find all his children gone, after arguing with Ella.

East is East’s arranged marriage subplot might not feel too high-stakes or new even to those unfamiliar with it, and it’s here that walking the line between farce and real threat is the most difficult to manage. The family’s reaction to Tariq and Abdul’s prospective brides has not aged gracefully: it seems a misjudgement as well as a comic misstep to show us the portraits of the women themselves, even if you must have the comments about heft and hair. Every party gets a little bitchy.

The tones of Bretta Gerecke’s design are comfortably caramel and warm, with lighting design tending towards psychedelic green, orange, purple. But though there’s a sense of the 70s domestic setting, the actors play largely along the front of the stage, and feel towered over by the projection screens which take up the back. These are made up like huge sections of camera reel, as would be in the camera toted around by Sajit. Their legs and the darkness below them can’t avoid them feeling oppressive, even attempting to suggest the red brick houses of the neighbourhood: they’re too spindly and sinister. It doesn’t help this family dramedy fill the space of the Lyttelton, and so we don’t quite feel the claustrophobia of the Khan’s cramped home.

The projections don’t seem worth costing all this party space, either. Mostly showing the same detail (close-ups of a carpet or groovy wallpaper), collages of photos of exterior settings, or vague TV shapes, at one point they turn to news coverage of the unfolding Bangladesh Liberation War, a preoccupation for George. They feel undecided, not quite animated enough for the energy of Felix Dubs and Jon Nicholls’ bassy, Indian pop and bhangra-interpolating sound design.

Hope you don’t mind me getting personal on your birthday. Thanks for the invite, East is East. You’re still looking pretty good for 25. Remember to take those moments for yourself: you’re always fun anyway.

Kind of hope you rethink your prices for entry though. At time of writing there are three performances left in this, your birthday run, with £20 tickets left (circle seats with restricted view), the rest ranging from £36 – 89. It isn’t easy for the kind of working class family you’re about to join you. Not much of a party.

And we really haven’t met here before?

East is East is on at National Theatre until 30th October 2021. More info and tickets here

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Frey Kwa Hawking

Frey Kwa Hawking works as a dramaturg in London. He likes to go to the theatre and the cinema. Sometimes they let him in. He is trans and Malaysian-Chinese. He always orders xiao long bao. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter @absentobject

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