Review: East ★★★★ – Berkoff’s dark exuberant hymn to London’s East End has lost none of its transgressive power

East first shocked and delighted audiences in 1975 and in Jessica Lazar’s production for Atticist Theatre it has lost none of its power. Her five actors relish Berkoff’s marriage of precisely choreographed physical theatre and heightened language to make it their own. He folds witty takes on Shakespeare – “he doth bestride Commercial Road like a Colossus” – into heroically scurrilous prose and verse, using Cockney rhyming slang and evoking place names and bus routes to conjure the East End of his youth. It’s a bleak and dangerous manor of dashed hopes, hard graft, violent machismo, sexism and sexual rivalry. Yet it’s a paean to generations who lived there and live there still, fascists and Jews, immigrants and those who resent them.

Antiheroes Mike and Les start as violent rivals for the favours of sexy Sylv and become close muckers after an epic bloody stand-off. Mike’s Mum and Dad share days out to Leigh-on-Sea and the family table with them all and an uncomfortable bed together. And everyone shares their inmost longings, unfulfilled hopes and sexual aspirations with the audience in graphic monologues.

Berkoff quotes one critic who describes East as “filthy beyond the call of duty” (and indeed if the F and C words offend, best stay away); “but” he continues, “in fact it is a loving appreciation of the male and female form”.  Despite today’s highly charged climate calling sexual harassment to account, there was no evidence of raised eyebrows in the audience. Rather there was delight in the energy of the storytelling in a shared space, created from the get-go by MD Carol Arnopp at the piano, playing pub singalong standards such as ‘My Old Man’. Indeed before the action begins, the cast sing snatches of this anthem.

While it takes nothing away from Lazar’s theatrical flair, I was surprised to find in my copy of East that this opening and later underscoring accompanying a silent film sequence and evocations of nights at the cinema are in Berkoff’s script. Though it also includes a stage direction that, after a family meal ends messily when Dad acts out fond memories of when he marched with Mosley’s fascist brownshirts (“six abreast to Whitechapel – beautiful it were”), it’s Mum who cleans up the set. Lazar has her entire cast cooperate to clear the mess to music while they work.

You can’t make new men of Mike and Les, though, and their power (and fun) is in the machismo of a sequence like their shared Harley Davidson fantasy. And Sylv’s vehement longing speech: ”I for one would like to be a fella…” hardly keeps faith with the sisterhood. But all are glorious and unashamed revelling in their sexuality and powers of attraction in performances at once lusty and perfectly calibrated from James Craze (Mike), Jack Condon (Les) and Boadicea Ricketts (Sylv). It’s hard to believe Ricketts and Condon are straight out of drama school. Russell Barnett’s Dad and Debra Penny’s Mum complement them perfectly. A riotous, unapologetically filthy delight.

By Judi Herman

Photos by Alex Brenner

East runs until Saturday 3 February. 7pm, 3pm (Sun only). £14-£25. Kings Head Theatre, N1 1QN. www.kingsheadtheatre.com