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.
I’ll always be grateful to Steven Berkoff. Back in my days as drama lecturer, blown away by his 1983 play West, his second foray into life on London’s gangland manors, I wrote to him via his agent to ask if I might borrow the unpublished script. The hard copy arrived almost as fast as an email might now, by return with a friendly invitation to keep it. My students adored playing the scabrously ornate muscular verse and the body language it demanded.