East is East – Northern stage

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Nice wallpaper

East is East is a sharp funny and frank look at the conflicts and characters of a first generation of mixed race immigrants in Salford in the North West of England. Set in the 1970’s, the language is rich (in all senses!) and totally unhampered by the minefield of political correctness which inhibits discussion of immigration in today’s media. This Olivier award winning play, gets a make over by the Northern Stage team in Newcastle, twenty years after its debut.
Swearing doesn’t always equal funny, but in East is East it seems to be entirely in context and completely hilarious. It’s like cross between Love Thy Neighbour and an X rated episode of Coronation Street. I love Lancastrian humour (I was born in Manchester) and its unfiltered wry, dryness. George, the Pakistani patriarch of the family rules the roost, and is actually the most unenlightened of all the characters. He expects everyone to do exactly as he says without question, thinks all things Pakistani are preferable to English culture, and still sends money back to his family in Pakistan.

George likes to rule the roost

It even transpires he still has a first wife there, living on the money he sends back to her. Yet he has married an English wife Ella (who seems to be OK with the first wife thing!) and has had seven children with her.  The family business employs Ella and most of the children running a fish and chip shop in the local, largely white community.
Vicky Entwistle is great as Ella. She is a classic Northern matriarch, battling for her children, who mainly feel that they are English. Most of the kids see frequent trips to the mosque and arranged marriages as unwelcome intrusions into their lives.

Sajit sees the doctor

Ella doesn’t agree with her husband on having Sanjit, the youngest circumcised because she knows it will cause him pain but she goes along with it anyway as she fears the repercussions from George if she doesn’t. Nor does she agree with his plans for an arranged marriage for Tariq and Abdul, to two random daughters of a respectable Pakistani neighbour, Mr Shah. Nevertheless, she puts on her best dress and welcomes him into her home. The scene where Mr Shah comes round to do the engagement deal with George on behalf of Tariq and Abdul is hilarious. The whole occasion is sabotaged by a series of unfortunate events, including a star comic turn from Judy Flynn, as Auntie Annie who inadvertently highlights the religious ambiguity of the household.
The young Asian cast are excellent, and I was sitting next to to the mother of Sabrina Sandhu who plays Meenah Khan, the only daughter in the family. She was very funny indeed as the tough, bright girl who has to survive living with five brothers and a domineering father in a tiny terraced house.
‘I don’t think even George would take her on.’ says Ella.

The Khan household

The Khan kids love their father but are also afraid of him and when challenged his temper can result in physical violence, and these scenes are quite disturbing to watch.
Much of the humour seems very close to the bone now. The characters call each other Paki – ‘I hate that Paki music!’ says Tariq – and and talk about visiting Bradistan (Bradford) When things start to get ugly with Mr Shah who criticises the modest Khan establishment, Ella’s blood begins to boil ‘they may be half breeds, she screams but at least they’re not half -wits!’
It’s quite a political piece and shines a bright and brutal light onto the issues of immigration and integration, and just never quite fitting in. Ella takes her role as a supportive wife to George seriously, but is torn between his demands and wanting her children to be happy.

Saleem’s art project surprises everyone

The set was simple but very effective alternating between the Khan’s living room with its classic 1970’s wall paper – right back in fashion now – and the rather inviting looking, chip shop.
I hadn’t read the play or even seen the film, and wasn’t quite expecting East is East to be quite so entertaining. I loved it, and despite going to the show on my own, found myself laughing out loud rather a lot, especially in the second half.  Check out the next performances here Northern Stage