Seen January 02 2015 Trafalgar Studio 1, London
Written by: Ayub Khan Din
Directed by: Sam Yates
Cast: Ayub Khan Din, Jane Horrocks, Amit Shah, Ashley Kumar, Darren Kuppan, Nathan Clarke, Taj Atwal, Michael Karim, Sally Bankes, Hassani Shapi, Rani Moorthy
From the programme (no copyright infringement intended): Pakistani chip-shop owner George Khan – ‘Genghis’ to his kids)-is determined to give his six children a strict Muslim upbringing against the unforgiving backdrop of 1970s Salford. Household tensions reach breaking point as their long-suffering English mother, Ella, gets caught in the crossfire – her loyalty divided between her marriage and the free will of her children
The play premiered in 1996 and was turned into a film, becoming one of the most successful British films ever made. I have to admit to never having seen it (I am planning to hunt it down now though) and not knowing much about the play beforehand. The reviews by professional cirtics and on Twitter et al were intriguing however and considering how much we liked TrafalgarTransformed’s Richard III in September, we decided to get tickets for East is East when we planned our trip to London.
Apparently I’m in a confessional mood, so here we go: not only have I never seen the film, the reason I was initially undecided about the play was the fact that Jane Horrocks is in it. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Apparently I hadn’t managed to see her in the right roles before, because she was a phenomenal Ella Khan.
In fact the entire cast was fantastic and played well off each other. Even a little accident that turned into corpsing was well handled and added some laughs to what was probably the funniest scene in the play already. The play is not just funny however. As hilarious as some scenes are, the issues the Khan family have to deal with are real and universal. Not just in terms of family dynamics which in such a big family are of course further heightened, but especially concerning everyone – especially the kids – straddling two cultures.
There are five teenage boys and their sister in the house, while an older son has been cast out for not abiding their father’s notions of how to live his life. This threat is of course hanging over the siblings who were all born in England and are stuggling to find their identities. Their father is glorifying life in Pakistan, which he hasn’t visited for decades, plans to marry two of the boys off without bothering to let anyone else, not even – or maybe especially not – his wife know beforehand and seems to lose his grip on reality and his family more and more throughout the play. The mostly light tone of the play makes the culmination in physical violence all the more jarring.
I had to think of friends and former school mates a lot during the play. The sisters who would never have worn a skirt, managed to convince their parents that Doc Martens were orthopedic shoes prescribed by their doctor (not kidding, those two are brilliant) and are now wearing hijab – of their own free will as everything else they are doing – and especially the one having to sneak behind her parents’ backs to see the older sibling cast out for not accepting the father dictating their future.
The Khan children are calling each other names like Twitch or Gandhi, one is dressed like The Fonz and Meenah, the only girl, is wearing jeans and Converse but can still beat up her brothers while wearing a sari for important visitors. What the kids in the play and my friends all have in common is the additional pressure of finding their own way navigating their parents’ cultures, that of the country they were born in or moved to as children, additionally to growing into adults as if that wasn’t confusing enough already.
If there ever is a follow up play showing us what the Khans are up to a few years later, they can count on my bum filling a seat.