East is East

East is East (Theatre Royal, Brighton, until Saturday, June 20th, then touring)

An overbearing father realising he has lost parts of his own heritage with a large family loving him and loathing him in equal measure sounds like the stuff of a classic Arthur Miller drama where hopes and dreams rise and fall as fast as a spring flower.

The fact that one even has such worthy thoughts about writer Ayub Khan Din should be enough to show just how good East is East – a fast-paced, moving and often very funny autobiographical slice of life growing up in 1970s Salford – manages to be.

Miller’s working class America grappling with massive cultural and social change here becomes the down to earth and endearingly believable North West story of a Pakistani father (in England for over 30 years), his English Catholic wife, their young family, and the fish and chip shop they run.

This Sam Yates-directed production has already played to great acclaim in the West End and now tours with a mostly altered, but very fine, cast.

The play was turned into a successful independent film in 1999, which opened out the action and characters considerably. Seeing the play is a powerful reminder of the claustrophobic home life of a mixed race family trying to fit into a society laughing at outrageous racial stereotypes on TV, seeing an ancestral “homeland” besieged by civil war, and coping with the usual heartaches of teenage angst. This atmosphere is brought to life by Tom Scutt’s excellent flexible set.

Simon Nagra is compelling as George “Genghis” Khan, harsh, hypocritical, and even brutal as he tries to impose a father-knows-best Muslim discipline on a family more eager to embrace a more liberated (but hardly more tolerant?) Western lifestyle. He carefully avoids being the obvious villain of the piece and is often quite loveable, but captures the Willy Loman-esque sense of his firm foundations and beliefs crumbling beneath him. There’s a lovely, touching scene in which he lovingly massages the stresses away from his wife’s tense shoulders as she reclines in an old barber’s chair he has bought cheap.

It is to be hoped that the wonderful actress Pauline McLynn does not feel the pressure of being the “star name” in this tour, especially when supported by such an excellent cast. At the moment her portrayal of the Lancastrian mum and wife Ella, straight from the cobbles of Coronation Street, seems restrained and uneasy. Her fierce denunciation of the wealthy Muslim and his wife who hope to marry their daughters off to two of the Khans’ sons, and her subsequent rage at her husband,  show a confidence in the role that will surely grow during the tour.

Sally Bankes as a plain-speaking Auntie Annie is tremendous, all but stealing the scenes in which she appears – a cross between Les Dawson’s disapproving Ada Shufflebotham and a clucking hen.

Perhaps understandably, given the autobiographical nature of the play, the strongest characters are the Khan sons and daughters, rebelling against tradition and honour and struggling to find their own place in a society that rejects or sneers at them. Ashley Kumar gives a powerful portrayal of headstrong Tariq, one of the sons destined to be matched in an arranged marriage; Dharmesh Patel gets to the heart of the struggle between not wanting to let down his father and finding his own freedom; and Adam Karim is great as a twitchy Sajit, who confines himself to wearing a dirty and smelly Parka to protect him from domestic unrest. Full marks also to Salma Hoque as Meenah, Darren Kuppan as Maneer, and Assad Zaman as Saleem.

This is a play that makes real to its audiences the drama of immigrants trying to find their true home, but also goes beyond that to bigger questions of who we are, what we try to be, and crises of domestic life. It’s sometimes sentimental but always feels true to life and frequently manages to be hilarious in spite of the dark edge.

David Guest