Stephen Berkoff’s taut play from the mid 70s, ‘East’, is not about backpackers, ashrams or gap years. Rather, it’s Cable St, Whitechapel and East London. It’s working class guts with no chapattis. And that’s exactly the point.
We caught a preview rehearsal of the show, which runs for almost a whole month at London Road’s Eighty-Eight theatre space (the new name for Emporium). The five actors chisel out their characters on a blank stage. This is about the minority and the downtrodden that we don’t like anymore. They are racist. They are sexist. They don’t like poofs.
We follow them on a night out at the films. They are bonking and loving, dreaming of another life. They want to hide the telly in the toilet because they can’t afford the license. It’s funny. They are sitting on a bench singing an exquisite a cappella rendition of ‘My Old Man Said Follow The Van’.
We like the monumental swearing. The cast take it to extremes, shouting with such spirit, that it crosses over into Anglo-Saxon poetry. We hear ‘doth thy’ F words and ‘willst thy’ C words frothing from their lips. Shakespeare is surely smiling in the wings.
This is physical theatre zig-zagging across the stage in eight directions. The fights remind us of Saturday night on West Street. We think we can spot the knives. We’re thankful we’re only an audience. It’s like Denise Evans, the movement director, is training a team of actors to win the next air-boxing Olympics. Yes, it’s ballet of the highest calibre.
It’s much, much more than the swearing and violence. But is it still relevant? We are discussing this at rehearsals with the director, Alan Perrin, while ambulance sirens kick off along London Road.
It feels like we’re travelling on a branch line of the working class that time forgot. Dad is at the dinner table giving a lecture on his favourite theme: the march of Mosley, the fascist leader. Mum is apparently listening with wise eyes – she hears it every week. Mike and Les are fighting gangs out on the street, getting hit. Sylv doesn’t want to see her guy beaten; she wants the freedom to strut the streets like a man.
Change some names, change some dates, and these aren’t outdated tracks. Snowdrop Production’s ‘East’ gives us the intense, unvarnished lives of others, close up. It’s 2016, it’s in our face and we can’t take our eyes off the stage. If you like your theatre raw, you’ll love this.
Eighty-Eight (aka Emporium), Tuesday 26th April – Saturday 21st May 2016
Tickets available from 88londonroad.com/east
Words by Mike Aiken
Photos by Miles Davies