East at the Vaudeville
Note: The following review dates from East's run at the 1999 Edinburgh Festival Fringe. It opened at the Vaudeville on 15 September and continues until 6 November 1999.
It is hard to believe this play is a quarter of a century old, as only a few unimportant details date it. Berkoff's script and direction are powerful, his evocative and vivid language brought to life by this excellent cast. Everyone works so hard in this production, yet they make it look so easy. A combination of rich and versatile vocals, superb comic timing, sustained energy and physical control, and the sheer accuracy of the performances testify to the skill and discipline of all involved. The spontaneous outbursts of applause from the audience were well deserved.
Using a minimal set, the five-strong cast, supported by a piano medley of sing-alongs, take us on a tour of London's East End, plus one or two impossible places, and it is all utterly believable. The characters are easily recognisable, but they are in no way two-dimensional. Behind everyone and everything there is depth and complication. Pride and dignity underlie the hatred, and potentially disabling insecurity masquerades as lust. Scary though it is, there is a sentimental patriotism beneath the matter-of-fact bigotry that is almost touching. This play is certainly political, but it is never pious. Savagery is celebrated as transcendent, ennobling the not-so-noble with heightened, Shakespearean language. Violence becomes heroic and sex a conquest of epic significance. Love is sensed throughout, though it can never be spoken or realised.
The play also exalts the simple pleasures of life. Resignation is never far away from hope. The desperation of the daily grind will not defeat these characters who continue, against all odds, to yearn for 'a glimpse of heaven'.