Review: East is East – Northern Stage, Newcastle

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First published in The Times, Thursday April 27 2017

Four Stars

Theatre directors are always faced with a dilemma when reviving a play whose reputation has been eclipsed by a successful film adaptation. To what degree should they acknowledge the iconic imagery of the movie while seeking to remind audiences of the story’s theatrical origins?

Suba Das’s staging of Ayub Khan-Din’s Olivier-nominated play – about a mixed-race English-Pakistani family in 1970s Salford – unashamedly pays homage to the best-known scenes in Damien O’Donnell’s 1999 film version. You can sense the ripple of anticipation from the stalls long before Saleem (Raj Bajaj) unveils the sculpture he’s been working on at art college: a detailed reconstruction of a woman’s genitals, with lustrous pubic locks.

Vicky Entwistle as Ella Khan & Judy Flynn as Auntie Annie

Pic: Pamela Raith

Overall, though, Das strikes a fine balance between comedy and drama that feels distinct from the movie’s farcical tone, and is all the more engaging for the director’s understated approach. Khan-Din establishes his theme of tradition versus assimilation with a lightness of touch, and in portraying the escalating clash between Pakistani Muslim patriarch George (played by Kammy Darweish) and his squad of British-born children, the director sets the scene with painstaking care.

 

The internal conflict afflicting the Khan family is initially revealed through a handful of gently comic vignettes, including the sequence in which the youngsters rush to purge the living room of the smell of fried bacon. While we are never left in any doubt that George is a tyrant, there are moments of real tenderness in his relationship with his English wife, Ella (Vicky Entwistle), which makes the events of the second half, as the chip shop owner asserts his authority over the family with increasing violence, all the more troubling.

l-r Kammy Darweish Deven Modha Raj Bajaj Sabrina Sandhu Omar Malik

Pic: Pamela Raith

The simmering tension between George and Ella is the play’s central focus, and Darweish and Entwistle are well matched in these formidable roles. Some of the children suffer from being sketchily drawn but there is a touching performance from Viraj Juneja as Sajit, the youngest boy, taking refuge beneath the hood of a parka but painfully attuned to the turmoil going on around him.

 

The action unfolds against Grace Smart’s lovingly detailed set design, whose period flavour offers a witty counterpoint to the pertinence of Khan’s themes.

 

Box office: 0191 230 5151, to May 13; transferring to Nottingham Playhouse, May 25-June 10

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