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East, King’s Head Theatre, review: ‘As a timely reminder of social inequality, East has lost none of its power’

PUBLISHED: 13:45 19 January 2018

East at the King's Head Theatre. Picture: Alex Brenner

East at the King's Head Theatre. Picture: Alex Brenner

(c) Alex Brenner

Since the play’s first outing, representations of the East End have become two-a-penny in mainstream popular culture but director Jessica Lazar doesn’t shy away from tropes that play up caricature and nostalgia

First seen in London at the King’s Head Theatre, Stephen Berkoff’s coruscating play returns to its original home over 40 years on.

A universe peopled with jostling working-class bruisers is defined by the number 38 bus route from Mount Pleasant to Balls Pond Road with boozy stop-offs at the Lyceum and day trips to Southend thrown in for murky relief.

Gentrification has significantly altered the East End’s social geography since the play’s 1975 debut but the startling language still captivates and Berkoff’s angle on misogyny and male entitlement warrants this punchy revival.

The five everyman players – young guns Mike and Les, their muse Sylv, and Mum and Dad - narrate everyday episodes. Their language is shot through with a heavy dose of mocking self-detachment and deploys an idiom that draws on Shakespeare and revels in profanity.

Berkoff’s witty form packs a sly punch with its glorious word associations, self-aggrandisising soliloquies, and knowingly hackneyed metaphors. Vivid descriptions of fumbling seductions in dank cinemas (one oedipal story drew audible gasps of horror from the audience), brutal knife fights and unrequited passions for posh girls ring out with a triumphant shout of youthful energy. But existential despair knuckles in at every turn.

Since the play’s first outing, representations of the East End have become two-a-penny in mainstream popular culture but director Jessica Lazar doesn’t shy away from tropes that play up caricature and nostalgia.

Impressive mime and acrobatics from Mike and Les conjure the exhilaration of a ride on a Harley Davidson and live piano accompaniment of jaunty wartime tunes functions like an additional voice in this conflicted family. The politics simmer rather than shout though Dad’s veneration of Mosely and the threatening clearing up scene that follows his explosion speaks volumes. The performances are charged throughout. Boadicea Ricketts as Sylv is a star in the making. James Craze’s Mike and Jack Condon’s Les stalk the claustrophobic set that evokes the rubble of the Blitz with impressive menace. Debra Penny’s disappointment as Mum is tangible. As a timely reminder of social inequality, East has lost none of its power.

4/5 stars

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