East is East review – Ayub Khan Din's comedy returns in Birmingham Rep and National Theatre revival
It is impressive how well Ayub Khan Din's family comedy East Is East has weathered the time. This production celebrates the 25th anniversary of the play's premiere at Birmingham Repertory Theatre and yet it feels just as fresh today.
Set in 1971, the piece takes the audience into the lounge of the Khan family where trouble is brewing. Patriarch George is determined his family will follow Pakistani tradition but his children feel otherwise – while his white wife Ella tries to keep the peace. When George decides two of his sons must marry his choice of bride, the simmering tensions become all-out war.
At the centre of the drama is Tony Jayawardena's George, a man riven by his own uncertainties and contradictions. While he chose to step outside tradition by marrying Ella, he believes his children should follow his rule – and yet his stern grip is constantly flouted.
Tony plays a George bordering on desperate – he veers from hearty chuckles and cuddles with his wife to physically attacking her when she disagrees with him. He has a great fondness for his children and yet wants to bend them to his will. Jayawardena draws out the human at the heart of George so that the audience is as divided as his family – we want to despise his small-minded ideas and yet we empathise with him despite everything because we recognise the fragility of his self-belief.
It is impossible not to love Sophie Stanton's Ella. She is warm, humorous, loving, fiercely loyal and yet pulled between her husband and her children. Stanton has an almost off-hand dry delivery and brilliant comic timing which comes to the fore at the climax of the play as she attempts to stage manage a visit from Mr Shah, the father of the prospective brides.
Noah Manzoor plays the youngest of the family Sajit, whose mental anguish at the pain he sees around him manifests itself in physical tics and a desire to hide in his parka coat and in the coal shed. Amy-Leigh Hickman as the sole daughter Meenah is the perfect stroppy teenager – her face when forced to wear a sari for the visit of Mr Shah is a picture.
All of the cast create strongly individual family members, each with their own personality battling to express themselves in this repressive household. Their agony is offset by visits from a bustling Auntie Annie, played by Rachel Lumberg, who can prattle on totally oblivious to the chaos around her.
Khan Din's play is bitterly and wickedly funny – Mr Shah's visit exposes the division at the heart of the family but does so in a way that makes you laugh out loud. There are moments when you are just squirming in your seat at the awkwardness of the situation as Ella tries to keep everyone calm with a cup of tea.
Presented by Birmingham Repertory and the National Theatres, the production is directed by Iqbal Khan, who earlier this year was appointed associate director at the Rep. He returns to a play he knows well, having also directed a production at the theatre in 2009, but there is a sense he has come to it with new eyes, teasing out the tensions in the relationships and giving each actor space to develop their characters.
Bretta Gerecke's set wonderfully recreates the 1970s, mixing period furniture and furnishings with a series of screens in the background which displays black and white photographs of the time.
East Is East is a piece of theatre tinged with nostalgia but also with a message which feels totally contemporary. Its explorations of identity, race, relationships, power, gender dynamics and familial aspiration ensure it still has as much to say to audiences of 2021 as it did 25 years ago.