Sometimes, when you pick a play to stage, you automatically pick a winner. Steven Berkoff’s East is one such show. Written in broken verse, it bulldozes down the barriers between classic text and a gritty, contemporary production. Like Shakespeare, Berkoff gives the art of poetry back to the public, to the working class, to the masses.
Jessica Lazar’s production is an homage to the script. East may be a play about mid-20th century East London living, but after 40+ years it returns to its central London birthplace at the King’s Head Theatre. Lazar teams up with Musical Director Carol Arnopp to create an atmosphere that fuses the slapstick and the serious – a series of silent movie clips, acted out in mime, provide the scene changes and segues between storylines. We watch East like it’s a live film played out in front of us – another nod to the writer, whose film career arguably outweighs his theatre work, in quantity if not in fame.
Lazar capitalises on the series of contradictions that sit happily alongside each other within this play’s framework. The distinct narrative style of Berkoff gives us raucous, yet stern; Lazar gives us affable cockney songs, as old men follow vans underneath arches and look neat because of any old iron, intermingled with fierce, aggressive comedy. “Fuck this for a laugh” according to Mike (James Craze) and Les (Jack Condon), as they meet for the first time by kicking the shit out of each other in a bar brawl. The concept is ingenious, but ultimately lacks magnetism. It’s watchable and intriguing, but it’s not moreish. After two hours, we are left wondering in what direction East has actually gone.
There’s a feeling that the cast are holding back in East. Their faces and bodies show the strain of the physicality injected into this show by movement director Yvan Karlsson. But the realisation is subdued and diluted – the shifts between rousing and funny lack the sharp contrast of Berkoff’s narrative. This writer provides Mike (Craze) with enough “witty verbiage” to seduce girlfriend Sylv (Boadicea Ricketts), but Craze and Condon don’t successfully seduce us. There are flashes however, ones that often flare up when the temperature rises, a heady mixture of lust and sin. The verbal sparring that bring the two young lovers together is fiery and flirtatious, and Ricketts’ resulting monologue about wishing to be as free as a man is spiked and barbed – a brutal attack that rings true all the more in today’s climate of sexual harassment and misogyny.
Each actor shines through in their respective monologues. Whether it be Les (Condon) in his search for love, only to find a prison cell; or whether it be Mum (Debra Penny) and her dream of a life unlived, one with sophistication, culture and class; each cast member brings Berkoff’s text alive in their delivery. But too often we lose traction – Berkoff writes in long form, but the text should never feel like it’s an effort to get through. There are too many times in Lazar’s version of East where we are wading through a quagmire, rather than skating lightly across the water.
The end of the production shifts gears, it removes the comedic elements and leaves the underlying tensions bubbling over in stark reality. This is the change in pace that we are waiting for, but it comes too late; the realities of the family’s working-class background are an afterthought rather than a focus. Lazar clearly understands the production, but this version of East feels too safe, too afraid to dare.