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EAST IS EAST – Richmond Theatre, London.

East is East, Richmond Theatre, London

Photo: Marc Brenner

The mark of a great revival is that compelling combination of recapturing the past and commenting on the present. Ayub Khan Din’s distinctive comedy/drama, which impressed on its searing 1996 debut and subsequent 1999 award-winning film adaptation, is reborn in Sam Yates’s vibrant Trafalgar Studios production, now on a brief tour, although a quirk of casting means its menace has been neutered – and the writer has no one to blame but himself.

Khan Din’s 1970s Salford-set drama was inspired by his second-generation immigrant childhood, and the pivotal part of his despotic, devoutly Muslim father is now played by Khan Din. It’s a therapist’s dream, with the once-cowed son graduating from depicting his dad’s tyranny to truly understanding its root cause in a performance aching with empathy. His George, a short-tempered man keenly sensitive to slights who left behind his first wife in Pakistan to marry Englishwoman Ella (Jane Horrocks) and father seven mixed-race children, is most compelling in moments of quiet anguish: watching news reports on the conflict unfurling in his home country, or desperately seeking respect from a family who refuse to follow his dictates.

Unfortunately, this gentle portrait leaves East is East curiously unbalanced, with “Genghis”, the monster constantly referenced by his wife and children, never actually appearing. Without that major obstacle, the courageous determination of sons Abdul (Amit Shah) and Tariq (Ashley Kumar) to defy their father’s wish that they proceed with an arranged marriage to unknown Pakistani girls feels dramatically undercooked.

Nor is the switch from salty banter between George and Ella to violent conflict completely sold – Khan Din is no match for Horrocks’ blunt, chain-smoking, shrewdly protective mother. It’s a tour de force performance that requires a stronger sparring partner. More effective is the fabulously funny Sally Bankes as Ella’s best pal, who, during the cringe-worthy climactic tea party, stops the show with gloriously ill-timed interjections that expose the chip shop-owning family’s identity crisis.

The production is on surer footing when offering up this beautifully observed, brilliantly energetic culture clash comedy, which, falling in the shadow of tragic recent events, proves both prescient and a source of real wisdom. Amidst a slew of well-meaning editorials on how to address the complex issue of integration comes a compelling account from someone who has actually lived it – and who recognises that there is no such thing as a simple, universal solution.

Khan Din’s experience is filtered through the fictional siblings: pious Maneer (Darren Kuppan) strives in vain to earn his father’s approval the only way he knows how, while rebellious Abdul, Tariq, secret art student Saleem (Nathan Clarke) and spirited tomboy Meenah (Taj Atwal) grapple with their outsider status in two different worlds as they try to work out what their culture truly is and where they can find a sense of belonging. Refreshingly, that exploration comes via expletive-laden sibling bickering (Khan Din employing creative cursing as punctuation), recognisable family tension and moments of adolescent yearning that makes this unique dilemma enjoyable and resonant for a wide audience.

George’s weak, hypocritical stance is smartly skewered, but weighted by the torment of Ella’s conflicted loyalties. They’re both understandable as parents doing what they think is best, even as their mixed messages sow confusion and discord among their offspring, each trying to navigate this ever-shifting generation gap. The personification of that emotional cost is Khan Din’s alter ego, troubled youngest child Sajit (Johndeep More), who squirrels away inside his security blanket – a giant, foul-smelling parka – to escape the domestic war zone.

Yates’s production has lost some of its intensity in its transfer from Trafalgar’s more intimate playing space, but retains its gift for smart period detail, with Tom Scutt’s set, viscerally evoking Salford’s claustrophobic back streets, and costumes supplying a vivid sense of time and place. Without a knockout central performance, this East is East isn’t one for the ages, but it’s still a gusty and crucially forthright show that balances fear of a changing world with real heart and hope.

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Reviewed 19/01/15/

By Marianka Swain

19th-24th January
Richmond Theatre, London, TW9.

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