East

Tue 15th – Sat 19th November 2011

reviews

Rosie Morgan

at 01:49 on 16th Nov 2011

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If you’re thinking of going to see East, I’m guessing you have some idea of what kind of play it is – and you wouldn’t be wrong. Steven Berkoff’s work is full of contrast between mime and dialogue, physical theatre and monologue, which can be confusing at first but is really effective with the right subject, and the empty life of East London definitely seems to be that. It’s not often that I go to the theatre really hoping that the director won’t attempt to change the original features of a play, but this was certainly one of those times: thankfully, Arthur Kendrick kept admirably to Berkoff’s ideas. But if there were one criticism I would level at this production, it would be that it was perhaps in places slightly too naturalistic, but this was really a minor issue I wanted to get out of the way before I write about the play, and only because I was a poncy drama student which means I like using words like ‘naturalistic’ and knowing what I’m talking about. (I’m still a poncy student, just studying English now, not drama.)

Aside from that tiny flaw, though, the production was superb. The cast clearly enjoyed working in such an interesting style, and they were revelling in the rich language and crude innuendo of the script, with its peculiar Shakespearean echoes in the east-end setting – my favourite examples being Dad calling Mum “thou vile slag” and Les, speaking of a girl who has cheated on him, saying, “I told her to get thee to a nunnery. In other words, to piss off.” There were some brilliant moments of physical theatre too: the actors certainly rose to Berkoff’s challenge. Their execution of the motorbike scene, where Mike describes how wonderful having a motorbike would be, was flawless, with Les acting as the bike and Mike perched on his back, shouting over Les’ grunts and growls. The crescendo of this scene, with the whole cast replicating the engine noises, louder and louder while Mike and Les beat their chests, screaming, “I am a Harley Davidson!”, sent shivers through the audience as the stage was plunged into darkness.

Justin Blanchard and Guy Woolf, Mike and Les respectively, were really the gems of the cast; not only were their scenes physically perfect, they were also very, very funny. And that’s not something you would necessarily expect from a piece of theatre like this, but there were many moments when the whole audience was laughing out loud. The humour within the play ranged from coarse to slapstick to high irony, none of which the director failed to pick up on. Kendrick had clearly worked hard with his cast to keep the pace fast and the energy high throughout.

This was definitely an excellent performance, and many aspects of the play seem very relevant now: a violent, over-sexed, hopeless youth, the emptiness of life, bigotry and racism – Dad’s speeches could have been taken directly from the Daily Mail, with lines like, “Ozzy Moseley, he had the right ideas...” and, “Years ago, things was good.” Rupert Mercer delivered these speeches with all the teeth-gritting anger that usually comes with hatred without explanation. Vocally, Olivia Vaughan-Fowler as Sylv was the highlight, looking and sounding as if she’d just walked out of Albert Square but with the most versatile vocal performance of all, particularly in the monologue about sleeping with Mike. Her raised eyebrows and crossed arms whenever the boys got caught up with their overwhelming displays of machismo were simply perfect, capturing precisely the female attitude to all this willy-waving, but still being fascinated by their world, discussing at length how she’d like to be a man and egging them on in fights.

East really was impressive, and I would recommend it highly so long as you have some idea of what you’re letting yourself in for: a lot of mime, a lot of physical theatre, a lot of swearing and lots – I mean lots – of talk of sex, not to mention Cockney rhyming slang which, combined with the Shakespeare, seemed to me to have very strong echoes of A Clockwork Orange, although I’m not entirely sure this was intentional. (Maybe it’s just inevitable in a post-ACO world with a play about violence and sex with men wearing white shirts and braces.) It was fast, it was funny, it was poignant, it was exciting, and I want to go again tomorrow.

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