East is East @ Northern Stage 20 April 2017

From the outset, East is East transports us back to the 70s with an angular and imposing set engulfed in orange. The furniture evokes northern working class urban life with intimate enclosed space and pride in the family home. Sajit or ‘twitch’ (Viraj Juneja) enters bouncing on a space hopper and hooded in his parka and immediately sets the tone for warped humour, pathos and identity. One of the main triumphs of the production is the inventive, seamless, rotating stage. Every turn increases the play’s momentum shifts the tone and beautifully complements the performances. It was also powerful to smell the cigarette smoke as an immersive reminder of times gone by.

Language plays a crucial role in this play. It is a fantastic script bejewelled with  hilarious and poignant gems. Much of the action is instigated by the actions of stubborn, tyrannical patriarch, George (Genghis) Khan, played by Kammy Darweish. Darweish embodies the essence of an immigrant father whose grasp of English results in its unhinged, unpredictability and frequent repetitive swearing (bastard!) that forms the heartbeat of his dialogue. His long-suffering wife Ella (Vicky Entwistle) shines during jocular and harrowing scenes with George’s manic moods of love and fury. Entwistle’s performance as Ella is truly magnificent; emotional, powerful and loving, she is born to play this role. Her best friend Auntie Annie (Judy Flynn) brings great comic relief to her scenes and exemplifies the easy integration that can exist in working class communities. The whole cast is a joy to watch and the energy they bring is infectious and joyous. Special mentions to Deven Modha as Maneer ‘Gandhi’ Khan who elevates his scenes with effortless ease and Sarina Sandhu who represents the outnumbered, but never outgunned Meenah in a passionate, fiery performance.

Celebrating the 20th anniversary of the first production of East is East, it is fitting to reflect on its relevance in the current context. Themes of identity, loyalty and fear resonate strongly with the political fever spreading through the west. Perhaps most jolting are the references to war in Pakistan and scenes of domestic violence which progressively become numbing after their initial shock value, just as the conflicts in Syria and Afghanistan roll on today. The exploration of some of the doctrines associated with Islamic culture are also hugely significant, balanced and relevant discussion pieces. George’s line, ‘if there no God, what we all bloody doing?’ seems to sum up the internal conflict of the moment. Maneer’s line later in the play ‘Being Pakistani is more than just religion’ strikes to the core of modern labelling, fear and bigotry. Hopefully, lessons can still be learned from such vital messages. It is often in art that truth can be most meaningfully expressed and this play is no exception.

East is East is a Bloody Belter of a play audiences will be privileged to enjoy this terrific new production with its vibrant cast, wonderful staging, laughter and a powerful message to take home.

*****