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Miss Amaretto’s Worlds’ review of Ayub Khan Din’s critically-acclaimed East is East is back in theatre

Punjab2000’s reporter Amrit shares her thoughts on the critically acclaimed play East is East having watched it at Trafalgar Studios in London this Christmas as part of its UK tour.

Nearly two decades after Ayub Khan Din’s autobiographical play was first performed at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre’s stage in October 1996 following sell-out shows in London, East is East is now back after the 1999 film and touring theatres in London, Birmingham and Manchester. The play reflects elements of Khan Din’s own life growing up in a Pakistani mixed raced household in 1970s Salford.

East is East is an exploration of immigrant life in Britain and how immigrants interacted with the natives and created their own identity. Khan Din writes from an autobiographical sense taken from the influence of his own life as the youngest of his half-Pakistani family. We see the playwright himself (Ayub Khan Din) star as George Khan alongside his wife, Jane Horrocks who plays Englishwoman Ella. They have six sons and a daughter together, whilst their eldest son is disowned for fleeing from his arranged marriage.

The show opens up with an exhilarating entrance as the cast members dress the stage with the classic 70s décor of patterned rugs, cushions and television sets, whereby George discovers that his youngest son has not been circumcised according to the Islamic way. We are then introduced to a recurrent theme throughout the play or how Sajit is more concerned about the removal of his Parka coat compared to his foreskin. Sajit views the cultural amalgamation of his brothers’ and sister’s British lives, entwined with the constant reminder of their Pakistani heritage through the looking glass of his coat’s hood.  The Parka coat also acts as Sajit’s shield from the whirlwind of emotions, situations and actions that occur in his dual-heritage upbringing.

As a parallel to Sajit’s aloof way of dealing with his family life, George’s attention and fixation of Pakistan at war is the reflection of his own crumbling life. His actions of imposing a strict upbringing on his children conflicts against the modern British world they currently live in. East is East is the epitome of family life even without concentrating on its ethnic spin; the rebellious brood of children who fight, argue and sneak out at night, depicts the love-hate relationship of any family, whether it be brother and sister, or husband and wife.

Amrit spoke to Ian and Vicky Vass who came to view the play after seeing the film “because it’s just so funny. It makes me laugh and I love the film.” Amrit also spoke to Kirat Shirodaria who brought his family to see the play as a reminder of his college days studying in Bradford. “It’s very funny and carries on the humour we see in the film. It brings back memories of my days studying here in the 70s.”

The play is set during the contemporary time of tin baths and outside garden toilets where the invisible British-Asian lingered in a non-existent world. Once the play had reached the audience by the 90s there was a sudden rise of British-Asians throughout the UK all clutching at the straws of entertainment they could relate to such as radio sketches of Goodness Gracious Me, Chadha’s Bhaji on the Beach and the earlier works of like-minded Hanif Kureishi’s novels and film adaptations. The time of “Paki-bashing” had moved on and Asians were suddenly bordering becoming cool and the accepted in thing.

Above being a comedy which helps the audience familiarise with its themes and situations, it unveils the tragic reminders that immigrant settlers faced, such as racism and the continuous spiral of traditions that had not seemed to move on including arranged marriages. Themes of alienation from being both British and Asian cultures, the feeling of not belonging to one or the other and the confusion of what it meant to be both is resident in the script. For instance the character of Abdul played by Amit Shah explores the issues and situations through his reasoning personality. Abdul delivers this great speech in conversation with his brother in the play which acts almost like a soliloquy of his thoughts and emotions being projected to the audience. Take a look at Amrit’s thoughts about each of the individual characters and what elements they bring to the play…

George (Ayub Khan Din ) plays a character that is misunderstood by his children and inapproachable to his wife. Khan Din explains to Theatre People in an interview that “George and Ella are direct portraits of my own parents; the siblings are my brothers and sisters but condensed into four or five kids whereas in my family there was ten of us.”

Ella (Jane Horrocks) is unable to stand up to the man she loves. Tangled in a strange relationship as the second wife and woman from another culture, Ella symbolises a strong and brave woman who is loyal to her family in all respects. Drawn between her loyalties to her husband, she adapts a foreign culture and encourages her unwilling children to embrace the same. However at the same time she is a caring mother to her kids and understands their struggles and supports their needs.

Abdul (Amit Shah) is the second son after the disowned Nazir. Abdul respects his father by avoiding conflict until he sees his mother abused. Tied between his loyalties to both parents his character acts as the ‘piggy in the middle’ which furthermore represents the conflict of a young man influenced by his family growing up to become a man who can stand on his own two feet and make decisions for himself.

Tariq (Ashley Kumar) is the ‘cool cat’ of the pack and most rebellious. He is well integrated with his western associates, enjoys pubbing and clubbing and is very popular with the ladies. Tariq’s character symbolises how an individual wishes to grasp one end of the dual-heritage spectrum. The play delivers an important message of how coming from a mixed background will always remind you of the richness of that culture, and how finding a healthy medium of both aspects is necessary.

Maneer (Darren Kuppan) is the only son who obeys his father. Maneer’s character reflects how an individual develops an understanding and respect for their culture as he chooses to follow the Islamic traditions welcomed by his father. He is often teased and mocked by his brothers and sisters which demonstrates his strong character who continues to follow what he believes in.

Saleem (Nathan Clarke) is the son who makes his parents proud for studying what his father believes is Civil Engineering. Saleem is the experimental sibling who explores his identity through art and expression by studying an Art Foundation course, which is secretly supported by his mother.

Meenah (Taj Atwal) is the only girl of George and Ella. She is a tomboy, comfortable in a pair of jeans and tshirt, often refusing to wear saris and salwar kameezes. Although her character permeates a gutsy and loud-mouth exterior, her behaviour is an echo of the boisterous mannerisms picked up from her brothers. In addition this behaviour is a symbol of the female strength present in the Khan household which is driven by Ella running the chip shop business and a family of nine.

Sajit (Michael Karim) is the youngest of the all the siblings, similar to Khan Din. In the same way that Sajit previews his family life through the looking hole of his coat, Khan Dhin does just this in the form of the play East is East.

Auntie Annie (Sally Banks) is the helping hand of the family. She often acts as the mediator and catalyst to problem solving George’s difficult ways. Annie is Ella’s support through the stuggle to cope which is delivered through her humorous character on hand to deliver jokes during tense situations and lighten the mood.

Doctor/Mr and Mrs Shah (Hassani Shapi and Rani Moorthy) are additional characters who are catalysts to the storyline. The Doctor’s character is almost like the audience’s voice, questioning Sajit’s behaviours and analysing the plot. Whereas Mr and Mrs Shah symbolise the stigma of ‘what will people think of us’ apparent in any household, Asian or any other.

Overall it was a fantastic performance which touched on so many notes of emotion, humour, drama and politics – A true British classic, well worth seeing by all!

Ayub Khan Din said “It’s great that we are touring East is East – I believe it’s really important that London shows can be seen all over the country. I’m particularly proud to be playing the Opera House in Manchester, a theatre I used to pass everyday on the bus on my way to a job I hates, little thinking that one day my own play would be gracing its stage!”

Jane Horrocks said “I’m so thrilled to be taking Ayub’s brilliant play, East is East, out on the road! I haven’t been on tour for a long time, and it’s always fun taking a show out of the West End, especially one as funny as this, that remain as relevant today as when it was written in the nineties. Birmingham, Richmond and Manchester are you ready for the arrival of The Khans!”

Limited UK Tour dates: Trafalgar Studios 4 October 2014 – 3 January 2015 New Alexandra Theatre Birmingham 13-17 January 2015 Richmond Theatre 19-24 January 2015 Manchester Opera House 26-31 January 2015