Violent and confrontational, profane and depraved, Steven Berkoff’s East is a visceral assault on the senses that has been hugely influential since it premiered in 1975. With bold theatrical completeness it uses language and movement with an unremitting intensity and directness. Jessica Lazar’s passionate production brings Berkoff’s portrait of the East End in the mid-century screaming into a contemporary relevance, working the tension between the funny, the offensively funny, and the just plain offensive. Originally deemed “filthy beyond the call of duty”, what shocks us today is not so much its violence and litany of sexual and linguistic obscenity, but its vision of a broken society whose oppressive misogyny, racism and feral violence seem depressingly current.
Mike and Les are twinkling cockney wide boys, psychopathically brutal and haltingly tender, trapped in the preening violence of the East End. Mike is played by James Craze with an oily swagger and oddly charismatic charm. Jack Condon brings a subtle sense of tragic desperation to the crumpet-obsessed thug Les. Dad is a sneering racist whose mixture of monstrousness and complacency is well observed by Russell Barnett. They’re difficult roles to pull off. It’s hard to empathise with such unpleasant characters. Their rife misogyny seems to go unquestioned. East is repellently funny, but the misogyny and brutality of the characters becomes wearing in the second half.
The female characters are more emotionally resonant. Mum is played with a heartbreaking steeliness by Debra Penny, bringing great feeling to bear on the tragic suppression of Mum’s intellect and the squalid misery of life with her husband. Boadicea Ricketts is spry and aptly droll as Mike’s fiancé Sylv. Her poignant Speech of Resolution completes an emotional journey from degradation to determination: “We will not end our days/ In grey born blight—and stomp/ Our hours away in fag end waste.”
Commending Stephen Moore’s casting, it’s amazing to learn that this is the professional debut of both Boadicea Ricketts and Jack Condon. The cast clearly and candidly embody the mime and knockabout physical action, and bring great energy and involvement to the generous monologues that make up the bulk of the playtext, alive to its sudden shifts in tone and register. Berkoff’s language is grisly mock-Shakespearean gutter poetry, peppered with classical allusions and conflicting references to real events, brands and TV programmes.
The action swings between the fifties and the seventies, and in this production, beyond. Music adds more layers of anachronism with scraps of songs from decades before and since. Musical Director Carol Arnopp’s live piano playing is responsive to the physical action and a source of humour in itself. The addition of a sound collage of politicians and events from the eighties onwards concludes on an ambiguous note of timeless struggle.
Reviewed by AJ Dehany