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Review: East Is East @ The Oxford Playhouse

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews

How can one marry two disparate cultures, quite literally, into one happy family? How can the patriarchal structure of strict Islam be comfortably aligned with the liberalism of post-60s Britain? These are the questions that Ayub Khan-Din places at the heart of East Is East, his comic depiction of Salford’s Khan Family, warts and all, that debuted in 1996 at the Birmingham Rep. Now, in a new touring production that began life as part of Jamie Lloyd’s Trafalgar Transformed season, they are posed again, with striking pertinence.

Simon Nagra is George ‘Genghis’ Khan, a Pakistani chip shop owner with a firmly traditional outlook. Pauline McLynn is Ella Khan, his classically Mancunian wife. Their litter of cigarette-smoking, beer-drinking, bacon-guzzling children – of whom most sit on the firmly non-traditional end of the spectrum – and the conflict between their ambitions and their father’s provide the crux of the play’s drama.

Half soap-opera, half farce, this is a tremendously funny production with a host of vibrant, engaging performances. Ashley Kumar is suitably fiery as Tariq, who is repulsed by his father’s plans of marriage; Sally Bankes is hilarious as Auntie Annie, her cheery, chatty manner the perfect contrast to George’s ceaseless consternation; and Dharmesh Patel is convincingly caring as Abdul, slowly feeling the weight of the world dropping on to his shoulders.

It is Nagra and McLynn who impress the most, however. Nagra is perfect as the constantly consternated George – all ‘bloody this’ and ‘bloody that’ – and McLynn is simply brilliant as Ella, caught between the two camps of loving wife and loving mother. There is a tangible chemistry between the two, so much so that throughout George and Ella’s blazing rows, their constant bickering, and even their moments of violence, one is never in doubt as to their love for one another.

This is probably East Is East’s greatest strength. Despite all the Khans’ fratching, there is an undeniable familial love between them. The rapid swear-filled chatter, the constant movement, and Tom Scutt’s busy set all combine to create a hectic atmosphere, but amidst all this the cast find a tenderness that is truly touching. They are all, tyrannical George included, thoroughly decent people, just trying to do what they believe is best.

This sentimentality is never overplayed, though, disguised for the most part by the play’s humour, of which there is plenty. From casually witty remarks to the almost farcical scenes, the majority of the laughs stem from the juxtaposition of British and Pakistani culture. This is crystallised beautifully in the show’s dramatic pinnacle, which pits Auntie Annie and Ella against Mr and Mrs Shah, a ‘respectable’ Muslim couple who disapprove of Ella’s approach to parenthood.

The play undoubtedly has an enduring relevance. Its political backdrop, the Bangladesh Liberation War of the early Seventies, has many parallels with more recent conflicts in Islamic Asia, and the problems that characterise the introduction of strict Islamic beliefs to a liberal democracy are rarely far from the headlines nowadays. East Is East, with its charming – if raucous – depiction of a multi-racial family adroitly places these issues in an easily relatable setting.

The original 1996 production of East Is East was credited with bringing British-Asian life to the forefront of British theatre, spawning a plurality of family-oriented Asian dramas, most recently David Hare’s Behind The Beautiful Forevers at the National. As director Sam Yates’ touring production proves, it remains a vitally important play.

4/5

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