Far From Eden: East at the King’s Head Theatre

Sunday 14th January 2018, matinée

We were astonished to find that it’s been over 20 years since we last saw a Steven Berkoff play.    We hope it’s not another 20, but just in case we did jump at the chance to extend our knowledge of the Berkoff canon, by seeing his early play ‘East’ at its original London home, no less, the King’s Head theatre.

We weren’t surprised to read in the ‘Author’s note’ that East is described by Berkoff as ‘a scream or a shout of pain’.  Few playwrights are able to produce something so full of pure rage peppered with such humour and sophistication.  There is no plot as such but rather a series of set pieces, which form an exploration of the angry young man (and woman) which makes John Osborne’s Jimmy Porter look like a pussycat.  It is hard to find a message in the play (which we suspect is part of the point), but it is full of original thoughts, fleeting moments of insight, and a searing honesty, which, as one critic put it, ‘is filthy beyond the call of duty’.

Director Jessica Lazar has given the play a production full of raw physical energy and creativity, which is thrilling to experience up close (although we were slightly relieved to be in the second row).  At the same time the action is beautifully choreographed and the actors highly disciplined, giving an experience of uncontrolled rage, joy, and passion in a tiny space without injuring the audience.

Debra Penny and Russell Barnett as ‘Mum’ and ‘Dad’ provide a solid, grim, foundation for a family of hopelessness and lost dreams, slightly leavened by some outrageously bawdy humour.  Barnett captures the right mix of thuggishness and unwarranted cheerfulness in his speech about the ‘good old days’ of marching through the East End with the Blackshirts (or trying to) illustrated by rearranging the family dinner – it is as painful as it is funny to watch.  Penny portrays a dowdy and downtrodden woman who is determined not to be ignored, and her hilarious account of married life (most of which is unrepeatable) is delivered with a perfect mix of deadpan humour and genuine sadness.

As Slyv, Boadicea Ricketts is full of energy, carrying the forward momentum of the play with her desire to be a man and have a man’s carefree life as she sees it.  She reveals an unpredictable character, simultaneously knowing about the effect she has on men and using it to good effect, but also sadly naive. Of all the characters she seems to have the best chance of turning her discontent into something better and she portrays an inner spirit which gives us some optimism amidst the confusion and longing.

James Craze as Mike has a lust for life that is infectious.  He exudes confidence beyond his abilities and captures the edgy impulsiveness of youth with a cheerful dumbness that refuses to reflect too much on life.  We found it hard to believe that this is Jack Condon’s professional debut.  As Les, his sophisticated exploration of youthful angst is a joy to watch – highly dubious morals are tempered with self-deprecating humour and somehow Condon makes this character endearing even though in real life we would probably be crossing the road to avoid him.

‘East’ is not for the faint-hearted.  The density of language, thought and action is overwhelming at times, but Jessica Lazar has delivered a fantastic production, and reminded us how ground-breaking Steven Berkoff has been – many modern writers owe him a great debt for sweeping away the conventional norms of performance and showing that poetry can be found in the strangest places.

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