Best known as a film, East Is East was originally a play, written by Ayub Khan-Din. Debuting in 1996 (the film followed three years later) the play was based on Khan-Din’s childhood as one of 10 children growing up in Salford with a white mother and a Pakistani father.
I remember the film very fondly, but it’s been a while since I watched it and in my mind it’s a comedy, its warmth and humour blunting the harder realities of growing up in a mixed raced family in 1971, Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech ringing in the ears’ of immigrant communities.
The play, or at least this Sam Yates’ directed reprisal for Trafalgar Studios, brings out the darkness far more vividly than the film, and the humour, while still there, is blacker than the Khan family’s coal shed where the youngest, damaged, child Sanjit (a standout performance from Michael Karim) is often hiding.
The play deals with identity, family, religion and, perhaps less obviously, masculinity. George Khan, the family’s patriarch, was Indian when he left the subcontinent, but is now a proud Pakistani, obsessed with the news bulletins reporting the Bangladesh Liberation War. George grows frustrated and furious that his seven children aren’t growing up as the good Muslim Pakistanis he wants them to be. He is estranged from his eldest son, Nasir, who shamed him by running away from home after being threatened with an arranged marriage and becoming a hairdresser. Khan is aggressively masculine, prone to violent outbursts against his wife and sons and dictating to them how they should live their lives with no thought for personal liberty. Ayub Khan Din is a menacing George, while Jane Horrocks may look bird like, but her Ella Khan is a tough northern cookie, the Kashmir inbetween her warring husband and children.
East Is East is an enjoyable, snappy family drama with some great lines and interesting themes. The young cast are enthusiastic and Horrocks gives a great understated performance as a mum trying to hold her chaotic family together. But I felt this production was missing a core. The thrust comes from George secretly arranging for his two sons to be married to two Pakistani women, the climax of his efforts ending in slightly-slapstick – rather haphazardly-directed, but worthy of a giggle – set piece, but this narrative isn’t enough to keep up the momentum.
East Is East also feels dated, not because of its early 1970s setting, but because of its nineties inception. The world was a light and frivolous place in the mid to late 90s, pre 9/11 and post the first Gulf War, when everything – even, as Amit Shah’s quiet, considered Abdul discovers on his first trip down the pub, racism – was played for laughs.
Even with the nods to Enoch Powell’s racist stirrings, most of the tension in East Is East comes from within the family fighting against their culture. British minorities are hugely underrepresented on stage, their stories so rarely told. It would be great to see a similar piece written about a family like the Khans today. Post 9/11 the world has become a sterner place and British Muslim communities have been hit hard by the fallout of prejudice. I wonder whether Tariq (the Khan’s self-styled James Dean, all leather jacket and late nights played with a strut by Ashley Kumar) in 2014 would be quite so quick to dismiss his religion and culture now that it comes under so much attack. Would he be more protective, willing to identify?
But, despite not quite hitting the mark and throwing up more questions than it answers, East Is East is a thought-provoking play, offering up a slice of time in British history with a wry smile that hides a heavy heart,
by Suzanne Elliott
East Is East at the Trafalgar Studios runs until 3 January 2015. For tickets and more information on London theatre, visit Trafalgar Studios.