East is East at the National Theatre review: Fine performances but still a bit of a queasy watch

·2-min read
 (Pamela Raith Photography)
(Pamela Raith Photography)

Ground-breaking when first staged 25 years ago, Ayub Khan Din’s tale of an Anglo-Pakistani family in Salford in 1971 retains much of its power to shock and amuse. It was always a queasy watch, though, and its raw juxtapositions look more exposed today, despite a riotous production by Iqbal Khan with some truly fine performances.

It’s a story about identity and family. George Khan, Indian when he arrived in the UK in 1936 and now proudly, patriarchally Pakistani, has fathered seven children with his white English wife Ella (though he has another wife back home). Eldest son Nazir has already been cast out for refusing an arranged marriage. There’s conflict in Kashmir, and explosive trouble brewing in the family’s cramped home.

Navigating their mixed heritage while helping to run the family chip shop, feeling English in a town where they’re regularly racially abused, is a minefield for the remaining five boys and lone girl Meenah. Maneer has become devoutly Muslim, Saleem is exploring forbidden territory as an art student; Sajit, the youngest, has developed a twitch and never takes his filthy parka off. Ella (a magnificently world-weary Sophie Stanton) fights a constant rearguard action on their behalf against George’s authoritarian attempts to impose traditional values on them.

Noah Manzoor nicely captures the anguish of put-upon Sajit (Pamela Raith Photography)
Noah Manzoor nicely captures the anguish of put-upon Sajit (Pamela Raith Photography)

There are interesting ideas here about how the family has become its own tribe despite deep divisions, and the sibling relationships are well observed. It’s very funny, but much of the extremely broad comedy comes from the clash of Ella’s northern bluntness and George’s heavily-accented exasperation, not to mention his use of terms like “tickle-tackle” when describing genitalia. Tony Jayawardena’s performance is hilarious and minutely observed, but I’ve never got over the feeling that this character, created by a British Pakistani writer, wouldn’t look out of place in a dodgy Seventies sitcom. Perhaps that’s the point.

George’s sudden bursts of violence are as startling as his rare moments of tenderness, but a lot of the flashpoints in the script feel clumsily engineered. The older boys are somewhat sketchily drawn, often defined by a single characteristic: Maneer by his topi skull cap, Tariq by his long hair, Saleem by his sketchbook. Noah Manzoor nicely captures the anguish of put-upon Sajit but the most vivid of the younger characters is Amy-Leigh Hickman’s tremendously gobby, irate Meenah, a real force to be reckoned with.

Sophie Stanton and Tony Jayawardena (Pamela Raith Photography)
Sophie Stanton and Tony Jayawardena (Pamela Raith Photography)

Khan’s production stretches the action across the wide Lyttelton stage but hits every comic and dramatic mark sharply. Bretta Gerecke’s set features evocative snapshots of 1970s British bleakness and costume designer Susan Kulkarni has fun with the fashions of the period. I still find the overall effect of East is East discomfiting. Again, perhaps that’s the point.

National Theatre, to October 30, nationaltheatre.org.uk

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