King’s Head Theatre – until 3 February. Reviewed by Claire Roderick
43 years after it first opened at the King’s Head Theatre, Stephen Berkoff’s East returns in Atticist’s bristlingly funny and energetic revival. The world may have moved on in many ways, but East’s community and its characters are still recognisable in Brexit Britain, which is both comforting and disturbing.
Berkoff’s writing style, though now familiar, is still exciting, with slang and violent obscenities punctuating lyrical Shakespearean phrasing – all delivered expertly by the cast. East looks at the lives of Mike and Les, two young lads from East London, whose friendship grew from them nearly killing each other over Sylv. Mum and Dad talk about when life was good as they live bitter and empty lives together. Mum’s dreams of a cultured existence contrast starkly with Dad’s wistful reminiscing about marching with the Brown shirts as he spouts racist and anti-Semitic bile.
Nights down the Lyceum, mind-numbing jobs and dreams of past and future glory are portrayed in a fast and furious time hopping parade of set pieces. Director Jessica Lazar ensures the end of pier atmosphere, so effective in the silent movie skits, still pervades through the more violent scenes, giving the brutality on display a farcical, almost pitiful edge as nostalgic ideas and bare reality dance around each other.
Jack Condon and James Craze are the perfect dangerous pair as Les and Mike, with Condon managing to portray Les’s loneliness and neediness without ever losing the fury in his performance. Boadicea Ricketts steals the show as Sylv, excelling in her monologues as Sylv rails against misogyny and the objectification of her body, as she exploits her sexuality like a weapon. As Dad, Russell Barnett is wonderfully obnoxious and bigoted, and Debra Penny is hilarious as Mum, sleepwalking through life and changing her whole demeanour as she describes her dreams.
Carol Arnopp’s piano accompaniment, riffing on hackneyed old tunes and musical clichés is fantastic, with Condon and Craze’s haunting performance of Underneath the Arches being a standout moment.
This revival of East is brutally funny and sharp, full of high-energy performances, and still packing a powerful punch today. Well worth a look.