1990s >> 1997 >> no-1113-may-1997

Theatre Reviews: ‘East Is East’ and ‘Roots’

Enlightening realism

‘East Is East’ by Ayub Khan Din, and ‘Roots’ by Arnold Wesker

East Is East is a delight. It is described in the programme as “the first play to be produced on the British stage that really gets under their skin of what it is to be of mixed race origin with the Asian community, growing up in a culture which is predominantly British”. In it, Asian father, George Khan, petty bourgeois owner of a fish and chip shop, faces problems with his English wife, Ella, and his children, as he tried to impose the cultural mores of Pakistan on his reluctant family living in 1970s’ Salford. Rebellion is in the air as he insists that his two eldest sons marry women of his choosing whom they have never met.

This is the first play of actor Ayub Khan Din, and the author has managed to fashion a moving play out of an old-fashioned family comedy. High-spirited children intent on deceiving their father at every turn; young son, Sajit, who locks himself in the coal shed whenever he feels threatened; Ella and her sister, Annie, gossiping over endless cups of tea; daughter, Meenah, hiding an unacceptable (to father) bacon sandwich under her father’s chair and scattering curry powder about to cover the smell.

There is fun in the air, and the author seems to invite us to smile. But Khan Din clearly wants our sympathy not our condescension. Separately the details seem comic; together they invite our understanding and compassion. Kenneth Tynan attributed the technique to Chekhov. Here it is applied not to members of the failing Russian aristocracy and their associates, but to the urban working class living in near contemporary Britain.

The ending of the play is as funny and as moving as anything I’ve seen on stage for a year or more. The conventions of the theatre demand that the father should get his come-uppance and indeed he does, But in asserting their rights his family manage to preserve his dignity; to show him the love and the respect which they evidently feel. The young mixed race audience responded in kind, as well they might. The virtues of autonomy, freedom and humanity were almost tangible.

East Is East is arguable part of the tradition of theatrical realism associated with the so-called Manchester School. It is part of a group of plays which began with Hobson’s Choice by Harold Brighouse, and continued with Love on the Dole by Walter Greenwood and A Taste of Honey by Shelagh Delaney. Seeing it at the Duke of York theatre, the temporary home of the Royal Court whilst the latter’s headquarters at Sloane Square is being re-furbished. I was reminded of another transfer from the Court to the Duke of York in the late 1950s: Arnold Wesker’s Roots.

Roots is a definitive play for socialists. It is about ignorance and self-discovery. Like the author of East Is East, Wesker’s early plays suggest that the function of drama is to interpret history. Roots is part of a trilogy of plays written about  another Kahn family (the Khans in East Is East; the Kahns in Wesker’s trilogy).

Beatie, who is courting Ronnie Kahn, returns home to Norfolk to prepare for Ronnie’s visit. She is critical of her family and bursting with ideas about the importance of thinking for oneself, of not surrendering to the diet of pap and irrelevance fed to us by the media; of education being “not only books and learning but asking questions all the time”. They are of course Ronnie’s words and in the final scene he jilts her, sending her a letter instead of arriving to meet the family. Like George Khan in East Is East Beatie should capitulate. Instead she rounds on her family, blaming them for their conservatism – for their inability to nourish their own, and her, roots. It is a magnificent tirade and at its end Beatie realises that for the first time she is using her own words and not Ronnie’s.

I know of no play written in the English language in the 20th century with a better last act than Roots. And that blazing finale with Beatie, triumphant in adversity, standing centre stage aware for the first time that isn’t just quoting Ronnie, is inspirational stuff for anyone who believes that people, both individually and collectively, can change their own lives and fashion the world to their own desires.

“Listen to me, I’m talking . . . It does work Ronnie . . . I’m beginning. I’m beginning!”

Michael Gill

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