Review: ★★★★ EAST, King’s Head Theatre

Review: ★★★★ EAST, King’s Head Theatre

Back at the King’s Head Theatre for the first time since 1975, heightened tension, sound, colour, and movement collide onstage to create Steven Berkoff’s EAST. It’s a physical and emotional carnival, with characters that exude so much life it’s almost overwhelming. The play is situated in London’s East End and invites us to plunge deep into the world of five characters that reflect the brutality, violence, and comedy of the 1970’s. Without a fixed timeline, we become witnesses to a jumble of moments and memories, overlaid by almost Shakespearean sounding verse. The fluidity of the language, and electric performances create extraordinary scenes onstage.

The first ten minutes of the play are a complete whirlwind and slightly confusing to start. However, with no previous insight into Berkoff’s work or the background to the play, it takes time getting know the characters. James Craze (Mick), Jack Condon (Les) and Boadicea Ricketts (Sylv) manage to keep up with the incredible ferocity and pace of the show, as they explore the passions and frustrations of their characters. At the beginning of the play, it felt as if their performances were too loud and overly animated, however, as the play progresses it becomes apparent that a real intensity is needed in order to play these characters. Each actor delivers a monologue that leaves them drenched in sweat and shouting at the top of their lungs, revealing to us the startling boldness of the personalities that these actors have to embody.

With minimal props, and in such an intimate space, the audience becomes hyper-aware of every moment. In one particular scene, with no room for set changes, the five actors have to clear the stage themselves- after the breakfast table comes crashing down centre stage. Because each performance is so detailed and intriguing, watching the five of them clean baked beans off the floor actually becomes incredibly entertaining. There is an intense physicality to the play, as the actors spill onstage fights break out, props are hurled across the room and bodies are thrown against each other. At one point Jack Condon adopts the role of a Harley Davidson, sound effects and all. In the tightly packed space, energy bubbles to the surface, and the audience are dragged into this richly depicted and imagined world.

The use of mime, accompanied by a live piano, is one of the shining features of the play. Moments play out in the form of silent films, with the actors adopting Chaplin style movements. The whole play starts to feel like a series of short black and white films or photographs. Its as if these moments in time have been captured, and are being explored from five different points of view. Whilst Debra Penny (‘Mum’) and Russell Barnett’s (‘Dad’) character’s reminisce about the past, no matter how awful, the younger generation confront the realities of the present.

Comedy is infused throughout the production yet the text has a seriousness about it, and is a wonderful combination of poetry and profanity. The production doesn’t shy away from exploring the darker and more incongruous parts of London, which makes both the language and play vivid and powerful. The play incorporates, songs, live music, dancing, swearing and a mix of traditional and modern verse. The downside to this is that it can feel incredibly confusing, at times, trying to understand what you’re actually watching. However, just being part of the energy that fills such a tiny space is truly wonderful.

Reviewed by Olivia Mackrill


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