dpm is a Birmingham-based freelancer with experience of arts and lifestyle features.
Director says classic comedy is more relevant now than ever
A new adaptation of Ayub Khan Din's classic comedy East Is East at Birmingham Repertory Theatre retains the original but hopes to speak to audience's today. The show, which takes audiences into the Khan family in the 1970s, celebrates its 25th anniversary this year after it was premiered at The REP in 1996 and went on to become a smash West End hit and a successful film.
Directed by The REP's new associate director Iqbal Khan, East Is East is the quintessential family drama of the British-Asian experience. While dad George wants to raise his family the proper Pakistani way, they have other ideas. It's 1971 in Salford and young people are forging their own identities – Abdul and Tariq want to choose their own partners, Saleem's art is raising eyebrows, Meenah's fashion choices aren't deemed respectable and Sajit finds refuge inside his parka coat. Meanwhile mum Ella is battling to keep the family united.
East Is East may be 25 years old but Iqbal believes its themes will resonate with audiences today. "The play explores issues including your sense of national, ethnic and religious identity. It also explores domestic abuse and violence, as well as ideas about masculinity and gender roles," he says. "I think that these issues have never been as visible as they are now across all communities so it feels like the play really speaks to the modern condition."
The 25th anniversary of the premiere of East Is East also coincides with the 50th anniversary of the independence of Bangladesh, formerly East Pakistan - a historic development that greatly impacts George's sense of both his national and personal identity.
East Is East is familiar territory for Iqbal who also directed a production of the play staged at Birmingham Rep in autumn 2009 – and he is keen to return to the story with a new perspective. "I always make plays that try to speak to the audience of the time and, 12 years on, the world has shifted quite a lot," Iqbal says. "The way I'm framing it and mining the conversations in it are responding to the world that the audiences bring into the auditorium."
And he adds: "Also the company I have is absolutely superb, I'm so excited about this company. Sophie Stanton as Ella and Tony Jayawardena as George are just exceptional, as are all of the cast. This is a brilliantly funny, witty play and I think it's very important, coming out of the time we've had, to have a piece which looks at difficult issues but is also a release and gives us a chance to enjoy being back in a theatre again."
Iqbal believes the play will resonate with audiences regardless of their own backgrounds because it explores themes held common across all families. "It's like any great play, whatever the specifics of the community," he says. "Arthur Miller, for instance, often used the domestic sphere to talk about world issues and the politics of the time and I recognise a very similar thing here. Every single family watching this will recognise tensions between generations, and a father, in particular, trying to hold together his worldview while his children are living in a completely different place and finding a freedom and their own way."
He adds: "Even though it's set it in a mixed-race family where Islam is the father's religion, every one of those children is completely different in the way they've embraced both their religious and their national identity. They are all finding their own ways, there is not a homogenous way for them to be and that's a very valuable point to make about all communities."
East Is East is one of Ayub Khan Din's most successful plays, winning a series of awards including the Writers' Guild Award for Best West End Play while his film adaptation also received a raft of international accolades. It's also a very personal play, with the youngest son Sajit being based on the Salford-born playwright's own childhood.
Iqbal says: "I am trying to be as honest to Ayub's voice as I can be. He wrote the play inspired by his own family and trying to understand his dad. There is something interesting in a young child who observes all of this. The young boy is a silent, if uncomfortable, observer of all the complexities. This production is coming out of the colour of the time Ayub grew up in but the way we frame it and do the music and design in this new production means we can also find a 21st-century quality and rhythm it."
Iqbal, who was born in Small Heath and grew up in Bordesley Green, has worked on productions as diverse as Richard III, Murder in the Cathedral, The Killing of Sister George, Educating Rita, Uncle Vanya and Rafta Rafta, also written by Ayub Khan Din. He has directed in venues across the UK and in Japan including the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Midlands Arts Centre, Birmingham Hippodrome, National Theatre and Edinburgh Fringe.
East Is East plays Birmingham Rep between September 3-25 before transferring to the National Theatre in October. And, like so many productions this summer, East Is East has felt the impact of COVID-19. "It's very hard to make work at the moment. We've had cases where people have been pinged and cases where people have had Covid so rehearsals have been massively affected by the real presence of that," Iqbal says. "I also have a sense that everyone is a lot more fragile in terms of their mental health and although we are all really excited and aware of the privilege of getting back to making work and sharing it with audiences, I think we will all have to step carefully and I'm very mindful and considerate of people's mental health at this point. This is a play that takes the audience on a really exciting rollercoaster of a journey. It's such a joyful experience in the theatre and we can't wait to share that with Birmingham audiences."
*East Is East plays Birmingham Repertory Theatre September 3-25, see www.birmingham-rep.co.uk or call 0121 236 4455 for more information and to book tickets.