There’s a vigour and intensity in East that keeps proceedings fresh, even if not all of the script has aged well. Was there a missed opportunity to bring it from the previous century into this one? I personally don’t think so: the language, for instance, at times poetic, at other times downright vulgar, would have made an impact in the Seventies, and for this play to shine in this sparkling revival is ultimately impressive.
The pace of this production suits the fast and furious nature of London living, changing track from the sublime to the ridiculous and back again with seemingly remarkable ease. This being the East End a generation ago, there’s a certain amount of fighting (which, to be honest, could have been performed more convincingly) and generous dosages of profanity – I didn’t keep a tally, but East felt like it was up there with The Book of Mormon with the strong language.
It felt natural, though, and contrasted well with the more distinguished theeing and thouing found elsewhere. Musical Director Carol Arnopp was sat at a piano, so there’s a relative novelty in live music permeating the play throughout, and the genres of music were almost as broad as the range of topics and themes covered in the dialogue, touching on everything to simple dreams and ambitions to the theory of relativity.
It is, on one level, thoroughly disjointed. With as many scenes as this, change effectively becomes a theme in its own right. It’s not quite like channel hopping on television, but the format of proceedings took some getting used to. Everyone at some point, separately, gets very passionate, and everyone has their own soliloquy. It was also pleasing to see that some thought had gone into this production – one particular scene change, after Dad (Russell Barnett) had waxed lyrical about a fascist march through Aldgate, is a substantial clear-up operation. In almost any other production this would be as tedious as backing up data to a cloud storage platform, but here, it’s a rare couple of moments in which this family comes together for a common purpose.
Some of what goes on is far from comfortable viewing but, goodness me, what a startling and yet beautiful reminder this is of the power of words – and the power of theatre. But there’s more. Certain scenes involve physical theatre, and extraordinarily convincing sound effects voiced by the company. While Bat Out of Hell The Musical produces the sound of a Harley Davidson with electric guitars, East simply mimics one with the human voice.
A recollection from Mum (Debra Penny) about what happened in a cinema screen had some members of the audience audibly gasping. Sylv (a sharply compelling Boadicea Ricketts) fights back as best she can against an almost overwhelming masculinity, embodied in Mike (James Craze) and Les (Jack Condon), whose singing voices are a delight, by the way, during a song in the second half, but there’s a metaphor in the two women on stage being outnumbered by three men.
There’s a lot of talk of apparent sexual prowess, and a fair amount of miming goes on: the two are not necessarily, without giving too much away, mutually exclusive. I cannot claim to fully grasp everything that went on, but the evening whizzed by in this warts (sorry) and all tale. Full of energy, this is an uncompromising and dynamic production.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Full of wit, lust, and fury, East remains a startlingly original and influential piece of theatre – a triumphant shout of youth and energy. Its language veers from Shakespearean verse to the depths of profanity without missing a beat, teeming with life in all its murk and glory.
East catapults us into the rowdy youth of Mike and Les as they fight over Mike’s girl Sylv and become unexpected allies. Assaultive, riotously funny, and entirely unapologetic, we are lured into their tall-tales of felony and bravado and we come to recognise their brutal kind of charm. Sylv knows her most potent weapon is her sexuality, but she still has the spit and pluck to level with the boys. Meanwhile, Mum and Dad live separate inner lives, both coming alive in the flickering light of memories, recalling lives they once led – or wish they had.
Bringing East to life at the King’s Head Theatre will be Russell Barnett (Hamlet, The Riverside Theatre; The Tempest, The Drayton), Jack Condon (Housed, The Old Vic; Clybourne Park, RADA; Scuttlers, RADA), James Craze (The Beginning of the End, Hull Truck Theatre and Theatre N16; Home Theatre, Theatre Royal Stratford East; Ernie – a One Man Play by James Craze), Debra Penny (Our Country’s Good, National Theatre; Flowers of the Forest, Jermyn Street Theatre; Martha Josie and the Chinese Elvis, Bolton Octagon and tour) and Boadicea Ricketts (professional debut). Carol Arnopp (Freelance keys, RTÉ Concert Orchestra; Children’s Musical Director, The Magic Flute, Cork Opera House) will take the role of the pianist and musical director.
East by Steven Berkoff
Performance Dates Wednesday 10th January – Saturday 3rd February 2018, 7pm
Tuesday – Saturday, 7pm
Sunday matinees, 3pm
Extra matinee – Saturday 3rd February, 3pm
No performances on Mondays
Running time 2 hours (including interval)
Location King’s Head Theatre, 115 Upper Street, Islington, London N1 1QN