‘This excellent revival, directed by Jessica Lazar,
captures East’s articulate anarchy… Not to be missed.’
Sit down and prepare for a verbal assault that will leave the audience reeling. Novel, hilarious, bawdy, relentless – Steven Berkoff’s classic play East is back in town, returning to the King’s Head Theatre where it was performed forty years ago.
Berkoff’s paean to the East End is also an elegy for a dying way of life. The composite parts of working class East End life from the late nineteenth century to the 1970s are all here: music halls, whelks, cinemas, Mosley’s blackshirts, bombsites, trips to Southend, different waves of immigration, post-war youth culture, and the advent of high rise tower blocks.
This excellent revival, directed by Jessica Lazar, captures East’s articulate anarchy. What remains astonishing about this battering ram of a play is its verbal dexterity. Written in verse, drawing on cockney rhyming slang and with a live piano complement, its continually audacious invention highlights the paucity of imagination in much of contemporary theatre in comparison.
When Mike (James Craze) and Les (Jack Condon) first meet they argue over Mike’s girlfriend Sylv (Boadicea Ricketts), but quickly recognise they are kindred spirits and form an alliance. Mike introduces Les to his family and we find out more about each of the characters’ histories and desires, their social habits and holidays. That’s about it really. But what an incredible, exhausting journey the audience is taken on. Few plays will make a ride on the Number 38 bus feel like a true odyssey.
If Mike, Les and Dad’s (Russell Barnett) misogyny and amorality make for uncomfortable viewing, we are then presented with Sylv’s turn to have the floor. Ricketts’ stunningly delivered monologue about ‘wishing to be a bloke’, with the privileges that brings, is a brilliant counterpoint to the prevailing norms presented elsewhere in the play. Likewise, Mum’s (Debra Penny) equally frustrated but more escapist monologue also captures the challenges women face, now and then, in this community and beyond.
The play is ideally suited to the King’s Head, with the actors eyeball to eyeball with the audience. The cast are superb in these extremely challenging roles, which are demanding physically as well as having to recite complex verse at high speed.
London is forever changing, and this change can seem the only constant thing about the city. East has many contemporary resonances, although it was written before gentrification truly began. It can only be imagined what the characters would think of Upper Street in Islington (where the theatre is located), and London more generally, today. They would probably say they could hardly believe their mince pies. Or something like that. Not to be missed.
EAST written by Steven Berkoff and directed by Jessica Lazar
King’s Head Theatre 9 January to 3 February
Reviewer Andy is a playwright who regularly has plays performed in London fringe theatre. He graduated from three cohorts of the Royal Court Theatre’s Young Writers Programme