East reviewed by David James
The East End of London occupies a large place in the British collective identity. This is the land of pearly kings and queens, florid slang, Jack the Ripper, Eastenders, the Kray twins, grimy boozers, jellied eels and thinly romanticised poverty. But this East End is quickly fading from reality; its real estate gobbled up piecemeal by its prosperous neighbour The City and its long-term residents emigrating to Essex.
Where does this leave Steven Berkoff's East? First performed in 1975 and based on the playwright's Stepney childhood, the play was billing itself as “elegy for the East End and its energetic waste” even back then. So how does it stand up forty years on - when the life experiences of its older characters have faded from living memory?
Pretty well, as it turns out. The five-strong cast (James Craze, Jack Condon, Boadicea Ricketts, Debra Penny and Russell Barnett) portray a gaggle of characters who feel as if they've congealed out of the collective subconscious of the East End. This gaggle of grotesques speak in a blasphemous yet vivid fusion of jumbled Shakespearian quotes, rhyming slang and a fuckload of swearing.
The striking language is overlaid on top of energetic and lively physical performances. Characters turn into motorbikes and are driven around the stage, fall into a cod music hall mime act, run through about twenty different kinds of dance in a minute or, simply and effectively, arrange themselves into expressive Hogarthian dioramas.
All that muscular propulsiveness pays off gangbusters. Each of the characters brims over with life - be it testosterone-infused braggadocio, indignant femininity or racist bitterness. It feels as if the primordial spirits of the East End are being summoned, spilling their guts in front of a contemporary audience they occasionally perceive through the slats of reality.
Each of the performers gets their own monologue in which to shine. My highlight was Russell Barnett's patriarch nostalgically reminiscing about Oswald Mosley's Blackshirts and the Battle of Cable Street - he was on the side of the fascists. It's just an outright great bit of acting, Barnett gradually building up from a light-hearted introduction all the way to his veins furiously throbbing on his bald head as he flicks baked beans everywhere and overturns the dinner table. As he joyously recounted kicking someone's teeth in I couldn't help but think of the footage from the neo-Nazi marches in Charlottesville: this character might be a mouldering pile of bones by now but his spirit remains very much alive.
Though I got the most of out of Barnett's monologue, the rest of the cast all excel. The appropriately named Boadicea Ricketts bemoans her femininity and wishes she was born a man, Jack Condon moons after an unapproachable woman on the 38 bus and James Craze delivers an effervescent, heartfelt paean to every conceivable variety of cunt.
It's difficult not to get caught up in the sheer liveliness of the show: though the characters are off-putting in so many ways they're also palpably alive. You sense that while the neighbourhoods and characters of East are quickly being relegated to the history books, they're not disappearing without a fight.
It's a fantastic bit of theatre and a testament to Berkoff's skill at melding words and motion. Definitely worth the trip - preferably with a seat in the front row.
East is at the King's Head Theatre until 3rd February 2018. Details here.
Pictures by Alex Brenner
Pictures by Alex Brenner