Originally Published On Reviews Hub
East is East is now most fondly remembered as a raucous, hilarious 1999 BAFTA award-winning film with terrific central performances from Linda Bassett and Om Puri, which sugar-coated the darkness and violence underneath for smatterings of visual and verbal humour. Sam Yates’ production, now coming to the end of a tour after its run in the West End last year, goes too far in the opposite direction; sacrificing the comic to attempt to get to the heart of the family dilemmas. He doesn’t fully catch the contrast of the play’s tricky tone, which takes it from light to dark and back again in the cadence of a line, and it leads to an occasionally muddled and muted evening.
Salford in 1971 finds the Khans torn between the contrasting values of living like “good Pakistanis and Muslims” as demanded by their tyrannical father and living like British teenagers – which his children look to embrace – giving them freedom in partners and careers and quietly supported by their northern mother. One son is undertaking an art course at college, another tumbling from bed to bed, all kept quiet from the bullish George. As he arranges marriages for two of his sons against their wills, these outlooks are about to crash headfirst into each other.
Writer Ayub Khan Din created one of modern theatre’s most fascinating characters in his patriarch George, obviously wanting the best for his seven children but terrifying in his stubbornness; a likeable monster, charming at times and turning violent when he feels his world start to collapse. Played last year in the West End by the author himself, he’s here given a performance by Simon Nagra that captures fully the three-dimensional complexity of the man. If the chemistry between him and his wife, played by Father Ted favourite Pauline McLynn, never fully convinces, this is as much down to the fact we struggle to comprehend, in a different era granted, why she would stay with someone where the love between them seems to be in the distant past and he has now become abusive.
The play finally catches fire in the closing climactic betrothal tea party when everything falls apart and secrets are finally revealed, in a scene as beautifully constructed as anything by ultimate stylists Stoppard or Frayn, and sees the family characters finally finding their voice and becoming a stronger, more united family as a result.
Yates draws strong performances from his ensemble. Dharmesh Patel finds his voice and stands up to his father and finds himself the new modern head of the family as a result, Salma Hoque is a sparky and curious younger daughter and Sally Bankes is the northern aunty who, with her gossipy asides, feels like she has flown in from Alan Bennett’s Enjoy.
Played out in Tom Scutt’s beautiful tenement design where the forestage transforms into both family house and the family-run fish and chip shop, the whole production has a retro old-fashioned feel that, with a sharper production, would capture its issues more pertinently.