Since moving to London, I have become something of a theatre buff. One of the best things about London is the sheer volume and proximity of theatres, all with an amazing range of shows. I love the excitement of attending a plush theatre, purchasing my programme and perusing it in a red velvet seat as I wait for the lights to go down and the curtain to come up. I have seen my fair share of London’s plays and musicals, and I am constantly updating my list. Therefore I think it’s only fair I share my experiences with you, and hopefully help you all to enjoy the theatre as much as I do. Hence this little segment, titled Stage Left. Enjoy!
A few days before my birthday, my flatmate Jon and I were lucky enough to snag cheap tickets to the preview week of East is East at Trafalgar Studios. We arrived on a blustery, rainy night – and were instantly transported back to 1970s Salford for a night of drama, laughter and choked-back tears. I honestly cannot urge you to see it enough.
East is East may be best-known to you as the 1999 film, but it started life as a play and has returned to its roots and crash-landed for three months in London. The story focuses on fish and chip shop owner George Khan, his English wife Ella, and six of their seven children (the seventh was disowned and left under a cloud of scandal after deciding to become a hairdresser). For the remaining children – Abdul, Tariq, Saleem, Maneer, Meenah and Sajit – they have to find a way to balance their father’s cultural expectations that they will live a traditional Pakistani life, with the opportunites and liberation that life in modern Britain affords.
I had never been to Trafalgar Studios before, but Jon highly recommended it, having seen Martin Freeman in Richard III earlier this year. I admit I was bowled over. Situated on Whitehall within spitting distance of Trafalgar Square, the theatre is surprisingly small for such a prime location, with a capacity of only 380 seats. It makes for a very intimate space, and catapults the audience straight into the heart of the action. Jon and I were upgraded from the back row to the middle of the theatre, but even at the back we would have had a good view.
The play was wonderful. The cast were excellent, and we had such a good evening. Jane Horrocks was the best known among the cast, playing mum Ella. She was brilliant; loving, funny, angry and weary, with a ready wit, which resonated with the children. The six children were all relatable too, and I loved each of them in turn for their unique view of the world and their irrepressible humour. The audience couldn’t stop laughing, and I know Jon and I were giggling away all night. But from moment to moment we switched between laughing to shocked or saddened silence, and at times we were on the verge of tears.
The play was originally written by Ayub Khan Din, and he took to the stage as George Khan. This was a wonderful insight into how he saw the portrayal of the character when he read it, and I think it is the most difficult role in the play. George is not the most likeable character: his children are afraid of him and refer to him as ‘Gengis’ behind his back. He is not above using force against his wife and children, and that automatically makes you ill-disposed towards him. But there are moments when his humanity shines through, and you realise that he is also as much a victim of the culture clash as his children, and struggling to find his way in modern Britain, whilst still carrying traditional Pakistani values.
I don’t want to discuss the plot too much, because I think it was far better to discover the storyline moment by moment and react in time with the characters. East is East is a very powerful play, and I think it probably speaks to a lot of people of British Asian background who faced similar struggles to the Khan children growing up. It was hilarious, serious, moving and refreshing. It’s in London until January and if you can get along to see it, you have to.
To buy tickets for East is East, click here