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By Eleanor Lawson twitter.com/elle_lawson
Review: East is East at Birmingham REP
Directed by Iqbal Khan, Written by Ayub Khan Din
There’s always an emotional atmosphere when a show having its homecoming, returning to its roots and playing right where it all began. East is East had its world premiere at The Rep 25 years ago, became a BAFTA-winning film, and is now kicking off The Rep’s new season (marking its 50th year at its Broad Street home) a staggering feat in itself after 18 months of pandemic-induced closures.
George Khan (Tony Jayawardena) is the domineering force in his family, hell-bent on raising his family in the traditional Pakistani way. However, his wife (Sophie Stanton) is white, and his children are settled comfortably into the Western rituals of 1970s Salford, Greater Manchester. And that’s where things become difficult. The play is named after the Rudyard Kipling poem, The Ballad of East and West, which includes the lines: “Oh East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” The mixed-race Khan children have to navigate this dual heritage.
The Khan children eat bacon, dress in jeans instead of saris, study art instead of engineering, and most importantly, want to lead their own lives, not the lives their father is crafting for them. And the one child who outright rejected his father’s plans for him, is the glaring absence missing from the family, a shunned prodigal son.
There’s an impulse for me to explain the plot, when in actual fact I probably don’t need to. The film has a strong fan-base, which has attracted crowds to The Rep, and one of the biggest audiences I’ve seen since the pandemic hit. I’m probably one of the only people in the audience who hasn’t seen the film, evident not only from the eager fanbase, but the undercurrent of snickers that build when plot points get hinted at – especially when Saleem remarks that he still needs to add hair to his model.
Tony Jayawardena as the Khan patriarch is flawless, having won the audience over with his first few lines on stage. He oozes charisma from every pore, which makes it even more gut-wrenching when his temper flares. This is a fully dimensional portrait of a man on the edge as his grip of control loosens, played out on a macroscopic scale through his obsession with the war between East and West Pakistan. His nationalistic idealism is being eroded in a physical challenge to his homeland, just as his family start to rebel against his constraints.
Sophie Stanton is wonderfully nuanced and restrained as his wife, Ella Khan. Hers is the tragic role, and it would be easy for her to fade away amongst a cast of riotous, effervescent characters. But she is the heart of the piece, and the most haunted aspect of it. Women bear the brunt of domestic labour, and their families tempers, both in real life and in fiction. Ella is used, abused, trodden down, a cipher for the rest of her family. She is less a person to them than a means through which they can pursue their own dreams. Stanton makes your throat clench as she stares into thin air, dreaming herself into another world as The Carpenters’ It’s Only Just Begun plays.
If there was any indication that audiences have been burning to get into theatres, it’s the auditorium for East is East. Even with empty seats peppered between audience members, the room still feels full, crackling with energy and brimming with life. There’s no nicer feeling than a full audience whose emotions bounce off yours, and you feel the camaraderie of being part of a group, bearing witness to something together.
East is East was born in Birmingham, and from the reaction, you know that audiences can feel this familial bond. It’s a play that captures cultural ruptures and schisms and heartbreaks, as timeless now as it was 25 years ago.
East is East is at Birmingham Rep until 25th September. Book tickets here: birmingham-rep.co.uk/whats-on/east-is-east.html