Following last week’s mid-nineties nostalgia with the arrival of Bruce Guthrie’s touring revival of Rent, Nottingham Playhouse hosts another twentieth-anniversary tour, this time of Ayub Khan Din’s beloved East is East. It’s a very different kind of time capsule, with its evocation of 1970s Salford terraces, chip shops, and families of eight cramped into three double-beds. But the warmth and chaos of the Khans, juggling inter-generational conflict and a range of identities (religious, ethnic, national), remains fresh, its careful balance of farcical comedy and shocking drama offering a far more complex picture of modern Britain than many that have followed.
The play is here seen through the prism of Viraj Juneja’s Sajit, the kid of the family who hasn’t taken his anorak off for over a year because “when it’s done up, I’m not here”. An orange backdrop frames the set, attempting to evoke the child’s-eye view of a boy watching the world from inside his parka, and scene changes involve Sajit jumping off the set and playing his own lonely games, always watching as the set rotates. These sequences drag on, in part owing to the slowest revolve in the world, but serve to present the play as a series of vignettes, all put together by Sajit’s disjointed logic.
The plot is, by and large, immaterial. George (Kammy Darweish), the family patriarch, wrestles to get his family to respect him, his religion and their Pakistani origins, spurred on by news updates of the conflict in Kashmir. He organises Sajit’s circumcision and arranges for two of his older sons, Abdul (Simon Rivers) and Tariq (Omar Malik), to be married off to a wealthier man’s daughters. But it’s the family that matters, and the real arc here is the adjustment of the family dynamic.
George’s absolutist stance on his children or wife talking back to him leads to some horrible moments of domestic abuse, with both his wife Ella (Vicky Entwistle) and Saleem (Raj Bajaj; the third youngest son, an art college student) coming in for beatings when they attempt to change George’s mind on the arranged marriages. By the end of the play, following a gloriously disastrous visit from Abdul and Tariq’s prospective father-in-law (Rez Kabir), Ella and her children seem to have finally thrown off the yoke and established their own right to self-determination.
Suba Das’ production isn’t perfect. The desperately slow scene changes lengthen the running time by aeons, the emphasis placed on Sajit’s physical sequences is repetitive and adds nothing to the production’s purpose, and the more puerile humour (especially the final line) is tonally jarring. But Das has an extraordinary eye for the interpersonal dynamics of the family. When the younger Khans are hanging out together, whether messing around or debating how to resist their father, East is East is simply joyous.
The standout is the “gobshite” Meenah (Sabrina Sandhu), whose sarcastic irreverence and blunt backchat are consistently hysterical, but all of the siblings shine in truth. Everyone has their moments: Maneer’s (Deven Modha) petty transference of his own bullying onto his little brother contrasts with his eloquent defence of his religion to his older brothers; Tariq’s initial role as the family rebel gives way to an empathic, vulnerable side; Abdul gradually comes into focus as the family’s protector. If I have one complaint, it’s that Das and Bajaj play Saleem – whose beating transforms him from the most reasonable to the most confrontational of the youngsters – much too angrily at the end of the play, stealing too much of the focus from Abdul’s emergent authority.
But it’s the central relationship, between Entwistle’s Ella and Darweish’s George, that holds the family and the play together. While Entwistle’s performance is deliberately broad (building up to the shoutier-than-shouty climax when she chucks the patronising Mr Shah out of her home), her warmth and humour come across in her chats with her best friend and in her tired but committed recital of her family’s names as she tries to get them out of bed. She is the heart and soul of the family, and deeply in love with George.
George, by contrast, is a terrifying monster. In a moving early scene, the kids flee from the family chip shop when they hear him approaching and, on finding an empty shop, George puts his head on the counter and weeps. It’s a beautifully unexpected moment, and Darweish does wonders with George’s vulnerabilities. Most crucially for a play that can be difficult to stomach in its depiction of domestic violence, Entwistle and Darweish sell Ella and George as a couple who are truly in love. The family is badly broken, but the conflicted ways in which every member tries to make it work are genuinely moving.
What George does in this play to his family is unforgiveable, and difficult to watch. But East is East isn’t about how family should be, but how family is. And amid the penis and foreskin jokes, the creative insults and the “dirty” art projects, the subtle beauty of this surprisingly sensitive production is in watching everyone find their own kind of peace with the family they’ve got, if not the family they want.
East Is East is at Nottingham Playhouse until June 10th. For more details, click here.