Due to another journey of chaos from Blackheath to Greenwich on a number 286, I arrived at the Greenwich Playhouse 5 minutes into the start of ‘East’. Whilst sneaking into the back row, I was immediately bombarded with a tirade of every swearword known to English. This was swiftly followed by a graphic depiction of one man beating through the skull of another, before the two become firm friends.
Such is Steven Birkoff’s ‘East’, an affectionate, funny, make-no-bones depiction of life in grimy East London in the fifties. This collection of sketches about twenty something Mike, his family and friends is not for the faint hearted – it’s explicit in every way and has lost none of its shock effect in the 34 years since it was written. I don’t think I’ve heard the ‘c’ word as many times in 27 years as I did in 90 minutes watching this play.
However, with decorum and sensibility ruthlessly cast aside, it’s actually very easy to engage with ‘East’, and with Talking Props’ interpretation of it. It’s relentlessly energetic and fast paced, and the whole thing has a real honesty to it. Perhaps prostitution, unwitting incest and street violence aren’t truths everyone wants to face, but Berkoff’s mission is to force us to imagine in vivid, dirty terms what life was like for the working classes at the time.
All the fresh-faced cast members are making their professional debuts, but you wouldn’t know it: they are totally believable. Charlie Fairless as Mike is particularly strong and has real authenticity, himself an East Londoner. Special mention also goes to Damien Hallett as Mike’s mother, for working the Nora Batty look with such conviction and giving the funniest performance of the play.
But the real charm of this play is in the language. Weaving expletives into Shakespearean styled (and oft quoted) verse doesn’t sound as though it should work in 1950s Stepney, but it does. The spotlight soliloquies and rhythmic speech lift the characters out of grime and poverty and give them intelligence, insight and unfathomable beauty. The faithfulness and commitment with which Talking Props have undertaken ‘East’ show this genius script in its best possible light.
If I had to venture one criticism about this production, it would be about the look of it. The lack of props necessitates the miming of everyday actions such as eating and travelling, which is a little awkward and detracts from the realism. Also, the costumes are a bit hit and miss. Whilst Mike’s slim jim tie over a grubby vest looks bang on, Sylv’s dress looks as though someone just found it in a charity shop last week and thought it would ‘do’, but it isn’t in keeping with the era.
However, these are minor failures and do not prevent this production from being a major success. If you have even the smallest sympathy for Mary Whitehouse’s view of the world, you might be best to stay away. Otherwise I’d strongly recommend taking a deep breath, getting out of your comfort zone and heading East.
*Congratulations to Greenwich Playhouse’s Artistic Director, Alice de Sousa, on being awarded the international 'Premio de Talento' from the Portuguese Government in recognition of her 25 year career in the industry.
‘East’ by Steven Berkoff is at the Greenwich Playhouse until 4 October