Director Jessica Lazar notes that Steven Berkoff’s East is ‘one of those plays that everyone thinks they know… But when you ask people if they’ve seen it, the answer is mostly no.’ I certainly fall into that category. As a Canadian, I had never seen Berkoff’s variety-act verse play, and had only heard of its punchy and vigorous portrayal of London’s East End. Lazar’s comment speaks to a trait of iconic works. They gain a sense of familiarity that extends into the mainstream, felt even by those who haven’t experienced them first-hand. So while for some, East’s revival at the King’s Head, where it had its London debut, is a grand homecoming, for others it’s an anticipated, even uncanny, first watching.
What strikes most is the boisterous, cadent poetry that has a Shakespearean loftiness with jabs of East End slang. It’s brash and arresting, profane and profound. Binding non-linear scenes from Mike and Les’s bullish neighbourhood together, Berkoff’s script catapults this world into a rich and mythic realm. Most of the cast have a strong hold of its rhythm, with James Crazen as Mike and Debra Penny as Mum being particularly captivating, but occasionally it gets lost in overused asides and quips.
Sharp movement parallels and complements the language. Boasting about motorbikes, Crazen’s Mike and Jack Condon’s Les do some phenomenally energized impressions of Vincent HRDs and Harley Davidsons. Slick silent film sequences display the family at the cinema as both audience members and images on screen, and at Kursaal. And Boadicea Ricketts as Sylv shows off her dancing skills. The action can at times get predictably literal, and more disjunct between what’s being said and what’s being shown might benefit the overall piece.
This is a deliberately self-conscious performance, with the characters saying at the beginning and end of the play, ‘Now you know our names’. Vaudevillian piano underscores almost everything between brawls to racist rants, and the characters even stake a claim of awareness of being in the play. The result is a stylized piece of theatre aware of its performative power. Its aim isn’t to give a linear story or to teach a lesson – if anything it’s amoral and unapologetic, offering up snapshots of hypermasculinity, loneliness, dreary middle-age partnerships and red-blooded sexual fantasies.
East is instead about mythologizing the East End’s history and character: witty, physical, raw and open. Not striving for authenticity, it situates its characters in a past that is temporally ambiguous, somewhere between the 50s and 70s. But through these quick glimpses into their lives, their idiosyncrasies and contradictions, the faces grow familiar. Unidentified in history books or in old photos, they become part of the legend of London, a legend that now includes East, the play itself. Energetic and exuberant, this revival effectively reinvigorates the myth, making it a new yet familiar encounter.
East is on until 3 February 2018 at the King’s Head Theatre. Click here for more details.