The Kings Head (venue)
11 January 2018 (released)
15 January 2018
It’s the King's Head Theatre's final year at the back of the Upper street Pub and they’re kicking off the season with Berkoff’s ‘East’. The King's Head has in fact been home to several Berkoff premiere’s since East in 1975 and the locations that pepper the play are familiar to anyone from the area. Whether it’s meeting a fantasy woman on the number 38 bus or a determination not to die in Balls Bond Road, there is a fascinating dialogue for the audience between the world when the play was written and what still remains.
Mike and Les played by James Craze and Jack Condon become best mates after a fight over Mike’s girl, Sylv (Boadicea Ricketts) on Commercial Road. This early fight scene is mesmerising, you can hardly distinguish movement and language as the ensemble tie the audience up in their grotesque fantasy fight. And back at home fascist Dad (Russell Barnett) is ranting and Mum is dreaming of escape at the movies. They make a brilliant comedy duo. The highly skilled cast of five handle the physical and verbal demands with full throttle dexterity and snappy direction from Jessica Lazar. Most impressive given that this is the professional debut for Condon and Ricketts.
Music runs throughout the production not just as accompaniment but as a vital dramatic element, particularly in the extensive mimed or physical sections of the play. The music ranges from Vera Lyn to the Lindy Hop and seventies punk with the tough young mates singing a touching rendition of ‘Underneath the Arches.’
The narrative is not hugely significant or that easy to follow at times. In some ways East feels fragmented, like a series of sketches with extraordinary linguistic fireworks from start to finish. And it’s the language that hasn’t dimmed or dated over time, with the cast biting and spitting out the dialogue as they dance across the small space. Shakespeare jostles with unapologetic expletives in the playful poetic voice that made Berkoff so influential.
Unsurprisingly for a play that deliberately references what was daring and contemporary when written, much of the content feels inescapably seventies. Not only the cultural references but the character dynamics, casual racism and sexism which haven’t aged well. Sometimes this adds another rich flavour but Sylv’s riff about being a man, which was once acute social commentary just feels tired to a contemporary audience. Of all the parts, Ricketts has an almost impossible task trying to take control of this cypher of a female character. I rather hoped she’d call out ‘Me too’.
Much of Berkoff’s East End world is no longer but there is also much that remains. Not just the number 38 bus that still runs near the theatre but the vitriolic right wing fascist father that Berkoff portrays with brutal honesty and some affection. The violence and the humour are as vibrant and alive as the characters the who embody them and the linguistic display remains as thrilling as ever.