Royal Court Theatre Upstairs at the Ambassadors Theatre, London WC2/
Theatre Royal, Stratford East, London E15
Opened 21 November, 1996

The first play to be written by actor Ayub Khan-Din generated such interest on its earlier outing in Birmingham that the current London run is already sold out; the newly curious will have to wait until Tamasha's production returns in early 1997 under the aegis of Philip Hedley at Stratford East.

East Is East deals, semi-autobiographically, with a mixed-race family (Pakistani father, Lancastrian mother, six children living at home) in Salford in 1970. The outside world is represented by news reports of the East Pakistani independence conflict, as George Khan fulminates against India's involvement there and in his homeland of Kashmir; Salford life takes the form of the children working in the family chippie and scoffing surreptitious rashers of bacon, and Ella's remonstration when her husband speaks of their "lost" eldest son Nazir: "He's not dead, he's living in Eccles." The two environments coincide in George's determination that his sons Tariq and Abdul will undergo the marriages he has arranged without consulting them.

An air of UK Gold sitcom hangs over the early proceedings flares, tanktops and Jimi Mistry's spectacular sideburns as Tariq evoke a period which now looks inherently comical, and Ella's dialogues with her friend Annie make the odd foray deep into the territory of Les Dawson's Cissie and Ada. Instead of a security blanket, youngest son Sajjid has a security parka, which he has not removed for a year. The central issue of racial and cultural identity is at first given either formulaic or humorous treatment: Munir, who chooses to live as a devout Muslim, is given the mocking nickname "Gandhi" by his siblings. Zita Sattar turns in a consistently fine comic performance as tomboyish daughter Meena.

As the crisis becomes more imminent, however, Khan-Din deepens all these characters, allowing the complexity of the matter full rein in a series of intensifying debates and confrontations. No one person is in possession of more than a piece of the solution, if there is a single solution. When George (Nadim Sawalha) lashes out physically at his wife or son, it is less an instance of a brutal nature than the cold violence of an automatic, conditioned response to having his status questioned; he is bested when the rest of the family stand up to him not in unison but in a spontaneous alliance of individuals.

Khan-Din's dramatic strategy walks a fine line, and puts only the occasional foot wrong. Kristine Landon-Smith's direction does it solid service. As ever, the Court's programme includes the full text of the play, albeit with inconsistencies; this review observes the spelling of characters' names used in the cast list rather than that in the script.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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