East begins with a cacophonous rendition of East End classic, My Old Man Said Follow The Van, with each of the five actors singing at different speeds and in different keys. It’s an unconventional opening to a play that we quickly realise doesn’t believe in compromise; much like its characters, and the famously distinctive area of London in which it’s set, Steven Berkoff’s 1975 play – which returns for the first time to its original London home at the King’s Head, directed by Jessica Lazar – has its own unique personality and makes no apology for the brutal, foul-mouthed honesty with which it depicts East End life.
The story – such as it is – centres predominantly around two friends, Les (Jack Condon) and Mike (James Craze), whose first encounter sees them beat each other to a bloody pulp after Les looks the wrong way at Mike’s girlfriend Sylv (Boadicea Ricketts). We then meet Mike’s parents (Debra Penny and Russell Barnett), a faded, loveless couple whose only pleasure seems to come from watching TV, reminiscing on times past and – in Dad’s case – lecturing the family on his right-wing views.
From there, the play abandons any pretence at a linear narrative, instead painting a series of pictures of the characters’ lives through a mix of heartfelt soliloquies, physical set pieces and comedic silent movie sequences – all performed by an outstanding cast to a live piano soundtrack played by musical director Carol Arnopp. The action jumps backwards and forwards in time, spanning several years, and keeps us constantly off balance as we try to keep up with the relentless pace of it all.
Berkoff’s language is a fascinating blend of Shakespearean and contemporary, laced with rhyming slang, references to East London locations, and enough expletives to turn the air well and truly blue. His characters are all frequently reprehensible, but also display a deep dissatisfaction with their lives that goes some way to winning our sympathy. Boadicea Ricketts’ Sylv leads the way in the hope for change, reflecting wistfully on a woman’s role in a male-dominated world, in a speech that could (to society’s discredit) have been written yesterday instead of 30 years ago. Jack Condon cuts a pathetic figure as Les – constantly left out, making jokes that don’t quite hit the mark, and ultimately betrayed by his own loneliness – with Debra Penny’s Mum similarly unfulfilled as she observes her sleeping husband and remembers with apparent satisfaction an incident at the local cinema that should have left her horrified.
East is a difficult play to pin down – at times funny, at others shocking, it has an underlying current of frustration that explodes in a variety of ways, from sex to violence to dodgy dancing (and, on one occasion, flying baked beans). The cast excel in physically and emotionally demanding roles, and the production maintains a constant drive and energy from the first moment to the last – all the more impressive given the lack of flow in the narrative. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea; if you’re easily offended then you may want to steer clear. But for anyone who’s excited by bold, striking theatre that’s not afraid to go its own way, this is a must-see.
East is at the King’s Head Theatre until 3rd February.
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