Most people will remember East is East from the 1999 Brit-com about the alienation and confusion of second generation immigrants. It was part of the cultural fabric of the New Labour years alongside the likes of Notting Hill and Human Traffic.
The play was written two years before. Set in 1971, it tells the story of the Khan family, seven siblings raised by the strict Pakistani Muslim George and his white wife Ella. George wants his children to be respectful to their father’s every whim and marry good Muslims; they have different ideas.
Director Sam Yates’ production is part of the Trafalgar Transformed season, which is made up of plays that are “as much about the world we live in as the time in which they were originally created”. However, while the play captures the spirit and energy of the original, it is so couched in the language and aesthetic of the 1970s that it feels rather remote from the issues facing young second and third generation immigrants today.
This isn’t necessarily a criticism – it’s a smart, funny, well acted play that skilfully treads the line between laughter and tears. Set designer Tom Scutt – who seems to construct half of the west end these days – brilliantly recreates the homely squalor of 1970s Salford. Jane Horrocks shines as the long-suffering, chain-smoking mother who attempts to juggle her husband’s demands with her children’s expectation of certain western freedoms. She’s the rock around which the rest of the play orbits; deadpan but sympathetic, laugh-out-loud funny but tinged with melancholy.
Even George Khan, who could easily descend into the role of pantomime villain, is imbued with a hopeless melancholy; more than any of his family he is a man without a state. When he left India in 1936, Pakistan didn’t even exist – his nationalism (and anti-Indian bent) is constructed after the fact. Ayub Khan Din, acting the part he wrote 18 years previously, does a great job of portraying his frustration over his powerlessness, and the double-think involved in forcing his children to take Pakistani brides when he married a white woman.
East is East is a blast from the past, as familiar as a school year-book; seeing it again today is as much a joy as it ever was.
First published in City A.M.