Playwright Steven Berkoff described East as “a scream or a shout of pain” – and certainly, this portrayal of the East End of his childhood is a brutal and uncompromising one. But still, this is an entertaining and enjoyable production, thanks both to Berkoff’s writing and the slickly-delivered efforts of a talented ensemble. The end result might tend more towards comedy than darkness, but the five characters’ stories still prove thought-provoking and, sometimes, poignant.
There’s no particular storyline to East. It’s a pure set of character portraits, revealed through a sequence of soliloquies – and yes, the tone of the piece fully justifies that word. Berkoff’s use of language is both clever and seductive: his Shakespeare-inspired phrasing is wilfully archaic, yet he drops in cockney slang and anachronistic modern references just when you’re least expecting them. After a while, you cease to notice the Elizabethan flourishes, proving perhaps that the language of the Bard is genuinely timeless.
There’s visual humour too, perfectly choreographed and impeccably staged. Memorable set-pieces include a reconstruction of a fascist march in the medium of baked beans – horrifying and comedic at the same time – and a magnificent, wordless portrayal of an entire seaside funfair, where the ghost train was unquestionably my favourite ride. On occasion the imagery is balletic, matching the sweeping tone of the language, while at other times it’s hilariously suggestive and crude. Two things, however, unite all of these scenes: they’re flawlessly performed, and tremendous fun.
Perhaps the whole thing’s slightly too much fun. The picture painted by Berkoff’s text is a colourful but ugly one; beneath the veneer of humour, there’s both horrifying violence and sordidly transparent misogyny. This production certainly contains its visceral moments, but the dominant feel is of loveable roguishness, only sometimes “smacking of danger” as Berkoff’s own notes demand. The patriarch, in particular, is much more gor-blimey than gangland – and in both his dress and his manner, comes across as far more respectable than the squalid terms in which he’s described.
It’s also interesting to wonder whether East has the same impact now as it did when it premiered back in 1975. One section, defined by its grossly excessive use of the c-word, nowadays feels more infantile than shocking; while the fact that Mum’s played by a man in drag simply made me think what a shame it was to deprive a female actor of the role. Yet other scenes, despite their coarseness, are touching and even tender. Tegen Hitchens makes Sylv’s wistful, character-defining monologue somehow beautiful, even as she’s describing something utterly base. Jake Farretti also impresses as Les, bringing a finely-judged sense of the grotesque to his story of a bad day at work turning into something far darker.
All in all then, between the highly-polished performances and Berkoff’s striking script, there’s a lot to recommend about East. Running at over two hours with interval, it’s a monster production to slot into the perennially bite-sized Fringe… but it’s well worth making the time for on these last few days of its run.