Tweetingit: 3* A smartly scripted verse play from the cultured pen of Stephen Berkoff is a hit and miss affair but still generates a distinctive aura of time and place.
Stephen Berkoff made his name as a villain in numerous film roles where he grappled with James Bond and Rambo among many others. He even mastered Adolph Hitler in TV blockbuster War and Remembrance. However, Berkoff’s spiritual home is the theatre where his skills as a playwright were honed. East was first performed in 1975 and this is the 25th-anniversary production captured live at the Vaudeville Theatre in London.
The play is an occasionally witty and frequently explicit portrayal of life in London’s East End. The anatomy of a rowdy working class family is explored in a series of vignettes – love, romance, family and friendship are all recurring themes battling for centre stage. Mike (Christopher Middleton) and Les (Matthew Cullum) are two likely lads competing for the affections of flirtatious Sylv (Tanya Franks). Mum and Dad (Edward Bryant and Jonathan Lindsey) survey the unfolding chaos and reminisce about the good old days.
Berkoff’s script has an erudite almost Shakespearian quality with rhyming couplets that grate until the ears are beaten into submission. Every syllable is stretched to the point of exaggeration with a large helping of vulgarity thrown in for good measure. The narrative spends an inordinate amount of time detailing the landscape of Berkoff’s youth. Whitechapel, Bethnal Green and Hackney are all namechecked, the number 38 bus route is a means of highlighting change as local landmarks disappear. Dad relates his part in the Cable Street riots of 1936. And just in case there is any doubt where this play is based, the Kray twins and Jack the Ripper also get a mention.
There is no question that East is a stylish and highly accomplished piece of theatre. But as a proud Cockney I still have misgivings about the play as a true reflection of London life. It presents a clichéd almost jaundiced view of the East End. Caricatures are drawn like borderline villains who think nothing of pulling a blade if necessary. Jaunty piano backed interludes include renditions of My old man, Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner and Lambeth Walk. This might hint at Berkoff’s true intention as he sends up a common impression of the East End. If so, he is a walking an increasingly fine and blurred line.
Author/Director: Stephen Berkoff
Producers: Julius Green, Ian Lenagan, Paul Farrah, John Newman, Paddy Wilson and Marc Sinden.
Pianist: Simon Sharp