18 Jan

EAST *****
By Steven Berkoff
At the Kings Head Theatre
East is Berkoff’s classic play which first brought him to the consciousness of British theatregoers. It is a series of sketches about a white working class family and friends in the years between the second world war and the seventies when it was written. But this is a period piece which has enormous relevance today.
Bawdy, visceral and eventually heart breaking it is a stunning palate of characters who would all love to leave their somewhat Victorian life in the East End.
It begins with the five characters dressed in ambiguous period styles sitting in a row. They sing ‘My old Man said “follow the Van”’ a Music Hall comic song that deals secretly with the tragedy of homelessness and helps set up the hidden unhappiness of the characters. They cannot even sing together – all starting to sing at different stages in the song making a cacophony of sound.
Carol Arnopp, the musical director and piano player has chosen the music well. The war is still in the memories of the older characters. ‘There ‘ll; always be an England’ plays as the background of Dad’s angry speech as he rages against ‘stinking long nosed kikes’ in typical racist manner from one whose hero is Oswald Moseley.
Behind the unromantic love scenes, she is playing ‘If you were the only girl in the world’ for lovely Sylv being treated as a disposable sex object and Mum who longs for romance rather than with a belching farting husband in bed each night. Debra Penny as Mum tells us of her hilarious, secret affair with a stranger in a cinema. Sylv – beautifully and robustly played by Boadicea Ricketts, sings of her longing to be a bloke and have the kind of freedom that a man enjoys.
Les (Jack Condon) works in a shop selling cheap shirts and he treats both the shirts and the customers who buy them with equal loathing. He longs to have an experience with a girl who is not a slapper – like the one he meets on the 38 bus, but he hasn’t got the right verbals to chat her up. (He went to the British Museum but thought the Elgin marbles too heavy to half inch). Mike, played by James Craze is always ready to pull anything that comes along and longs for a Harley Davidson – his favourite sexual symbol.
The thing that stands out from the usual gritty East Enders type is the dialogue. Using Shakespearean rhyme – and many quotes from the Bard along with Cockney rhyming slang and a forest of four letter words, the lines work perfectly in accord with each other.
Jessica Lazar has directed her players so well. They have no inhibitions, some of the scenes are played in mime and even the scene where they clean away the rubbish, sweeping the floor and moving the furniture is absolutely fascinating to watch.
But it is the Berkoff style dialogue which exalts the play and elevates it into something rich and strange, poetic and utterly beautiful.

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