Poor, Nasty, Brutish and Short Lives
Steven Berkoff’s East premiered at the Edinburgh Festival in 1975. Atticist’s production of East may be a timely revival, post Brexit referendum, of an historical depiction of a section of poor white working class East Enders. They are stereotypes of the white working class who are obnoxious and brutal, spouting racist and misogynist views. Anyone familiar with Berkoff will know that his work is provocative. East is a confrontational, thought provoking and shocking portrayal of poor white working-class Londoners living in the East End during 1950s to 1970s. The cast of highly talented actors show great commitment in their performances of such a challenging play.
This vision of the white working class is not romanticised, they have cruel and vicious lives. It has been described as an elegy for the East End; I think it is more than that. East is arguably a Hobbesian perspective of some white working class East Enders whose lives are “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” due to being marginalised from mainstream society. It is often distressing and offensive, containing a lot of violence and anger. But there is also a lot of humour. Cleverly written and skilfully performed in a Shakespearian verse, using Cockney slang and language, there isn’t really a plot but this doesn’t matter. East is a series of vignettes or sketches depicting incidents from the lives of these exaggerated characters. A key to the ingenuity of East, is how it is tightly structured using, different acting techniques, to show us the day-to-day lives of these East Enders. Sharply choreographed by the Directors Adam Spreadbury-Maher and Fiona English, the cast expertly weave mime, song, movement, monologues, narration, and direct interaction to show the East Enders eating, sleeping, fighting, working, going to the cinema and funfair and having a lot of violent or illicit sex.
Boadicea Ricketts’ outstanding performance of Sylv portrays Sylv’s self-awareness and acceptance of her life. So it is sometimes comical, sometimes unpleasant and often unsatisfactory for Sylv, who doesn’t seem to get any pleasure from sex with Mike, due to his selfishness and brutality. Sylv is very insightful saying: “I’d like to be a fella…to dip a wick and not give a shit.” She is also fully aware of the double standards which exist saying: “ I’d be a bloke…I wish I could cruise around and pull those tarts. It’s not fair that those pricks get all the fun… If I dare do that -what a scrubber.” But in the end she appears to be resigned to her lot.
Indeed most of the characters are self-aware. Jack Condon as Les also provides an adept performance. I like his monologues including when he discusses working in a small ancient menswear shop during “a day that poured down boredom like yellow piss”. He vividly narrates and performs his soliloquies, as each character does. His description of an underage Irish girl he meets is poetic, she has “giggles and freckles leaping everywhere.” Unfortunately, like a lot of events in his life, it all goes wrong. The police beat him up and arrest him for rape and he is imprisoned for 3 years because, he claims, “those lawmen did believe that slag.”
All the male characters are larger than life alpha males. At the start of the play Les and Mike, well played by James Craze, reluctantly fight viciously over Sylv. These young men treat women as sex objects purely for their pleasure. Mike’s soliloquy to different types of “cunt” is shocking.
Russell Barnett expertly presents a really detestable Dad who is full of hatred of women, black people and Jews. Glorifying his fascism, he celebrates Mosley’s Blackshirts and the 1936 fight in Cable Street. He smashes up the food, plates and table as he describes how they fought and attacked anti-fascist demonstrators during the Battle of Cable Street. There is then an abrupt change of mood, which makes it even more shocking, when Dad asks “what’s on TV?”
Debra Penny excellently performs Mum as a woman who, stunned by her life into submission, seems to be going through the motions. Penny’s monologue as Mum reveals her disgust of Dad, “a dirty bastard… at his age when he’s pissed he grabs me … When he starts on me it’s like being assaulted.” Mum narrates and acts what she describes is a short affair, which is initially funny but develops into an extremely shocking incident. But like Sylv, Mum appears resigned to what happens to her.
The pianist is vital for the play; adding to and changing the mood, emphasising incidents. How the actors portray watching films in the cinema is fantastic. When the cast sit in row miming eating popcorn and reacting to films, we can identify them as the pianist plays theme tunes from well-known 70s films such as Pink Panther, Jaws and James Bond. I also enjoy how, in another sketch, the cast dance at the Lyceum during the forties, sixties and seventies. They jive to big band music, pogo to punk and do the twist, all accompanied by the brilliant pianist.
East is not for the faint hearted. It is poetic, intelligent, brutal and funny. It is heavily punctuated with soliloquies from each character who also variously and superbly act as the chorus, narrator and individual characters interacting with each other. It is a testament to the highly gifted cast, that they are able to bring vitality and meaning to this very challenging and experimental play.
All photos by Alex Bremner
East is at The King’s Head Theatre from 9 January to 3 February 2018. http://www.kingsheadtheatre.com