Wednesday, 30 September 2009

East is East - The Birmingham Rep

East is East
Writer: Ayub Khan-Din
Director: Iqbal Khan
Reviewer: Matt Schofield

The comedy East is East has moved full circle as it returns to the stage in Birmingham after its original world premiere production in the REP’s studio theatre some thirteen years ago, having since been adapted for the screen in the BAFTA award winning film of 1999. Its second production sees the REP cast under the direction of Iqbal Khan, a man whose background shares many similarities with that of the Khan family depicted in the play, having been raised by his Pakistani father in the Small Heath area during the 1980s. Talking to the Birmingham Post, Iqbal recollected on his childhood, ‘I always felt that tension between who I feel I am and who I’m expected to be’ and it quickly becomes evident that this is one of the underlying themes throughout the play.

East is East is set against the backdrop of Salford in 1971 and George Khan, owner of the local fish and chip shop is determined to bring his family up in the traditional manner. His seven children on the other hand have ideas of their own. One’s already left home to be a hairdresser, his daughter prefers playing football to wearing a sari and now 18 year old Saleem wants to study art while 12 year old Sajit is about to be transformed from a shy gawky boy into a self-confident teenager.

With one disastrous arranged marriage in the family already, George plots to bring his next two sons into line by marrying them off to the daughters of Mr Shah. When the Khan kids begin to oppose their father’s blundering attempts to control their lives, his English wife Ella is forced to make a choice between her husband and the right of her children to make their own ways in the world.

What still makes East is East so effective, aside from its sheer hilarity (culminating in the final scene where the sharade of a normal family life is shattered), is its ability to cut straight to the hard issues that have continued to challenge Asian (and more generally, imigrant) communities in the UK for more than 50 years through the itimacy of one family’s life and their struggle to understand the world they live in. Whislt some critics have argued its character portrayal is stereotypical as Iqbal argues, and I would agree that, ‘it’s a hard, complex play that’s surprisingly subversive…in terms of undercutting stereotypes that might exist about the north, about Asian fathers and their relationships with their families, and the white women who married into that community and their ability to be themselves.”

Underneath the comedy of this unorthodox and dysfunctional family, East is East asks serious questions about belonging, identity in mixed race families, conformity both to the society and family and about the rights and wrongs of those in positions of influence to enforce cultural and religious standards.
The cast potray both the intimacy and lunacy of this family life excellently (particularly noteworthy are Archie Lal as the overbearing father and Belinda Lang as his burdened wife as well as a hilarious performance by James McGlynn as Sajit with all his strange quirks) overcoming well the difficulties of performing such a play on a large platform. Altogether a thoroughly enjoyable, provocative and hilarious production.

Runs until Sat 17th Oct
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