Stephen Berkoff has always been the bad boy of British theatre. At East’s London première in 1975, the critics howled. Berkoff’s first play was filthy, with explicit references to sex and violence. Yes, the 1950s had spawned Kitchen Sink Drama, exposing the lives of the lower classes to a predominantly middle-class British stage. But Berkoff’s characters weren’t just battling East Enders. They were angry. They blamed the system. They were articulate.
The play was an immediate succès de scandale, sold out within days, and catapulted Berkoff into celebrity status. Set in the early 1960s, East is written in cod blank verse with the characters addressing themselves as ‘thee’ and ‘thou’, interspersed with liberal doses of Cockney rhyming slang. Berkoff, an East Ender himself, immediately sets out to show that those born within the sound of Bow Bells have a right to be heard on the same terms as their so-called ‘betters’. Not only are they equally intelligent, but they are imbued with an energy and zest for life unheard of in the colourless suburbs.
Essentially, East is a series of loosely interlinked vignettes, interspersed with music-hall songs, which, at that time, were still sung regularly around the piano in London pubs. Mum (in curlers) and Dad (in underwear) are pitted against the younger jeans-and-leather generation, personified by twenty-something Mike and Les.
Swaggering Bovver Boys reeking of testosterone, Mike is a bit of a lady’s man, and Les’s pent-up frustrations at working in a stuffy tailor’s shop are about to boil over. Violence and crime are their only way to get ahead. Back home, Dad, a fascist and bigot, fondly remembers the good old days of the Black Shirts, when Mosley and his crew beat up the local Jews. Mum, referred to by Dad disparagingly as ‘the carthorse’, is simply worn out after years of childbearing and verbal abuse. The quartet bawl and brawl, squabble and seduce. Yet there is a feeling of stasis. Only Sylv, East’s resident siren, gives any indication that she is ready to escape the slums and move on.
In the first production, Berkoff himself played Mike, with a belligerent physicality and in-your-face sexuality that even East’s critics had to applaud. Twenty-five years later, greyer but no less charismatic, I saw him playing the role of Mum. He had written the role specifically for a man in drag, to highlight the plight of postwar, pre-feminism East End women. Berkoff, who trained with Jacques Lecoq, is a master of mime and physical theatre. As Mum, he was a sunken, cowering wreck of a woman – an unforgettable performance.
‘The quartet bawl and brawl, squabble and seduce.’
It is a brave theatre company that takes East on, but Black Water Theatre has tackled the play with gusto. Director Peta Hanrahan has created a true ensemble piece, where every actor has a chance to shine. As a chorus, they come together for caterwauling sing-alongs of ‘Underneath the Arches’, ‘If You Were the Only Girl in the World’, and ‘We’ll Meet Again,’ around the piano (thanks, Alex Brittan), breaking away for a spot-lit monologue or some louche banter. Adrian Auld (Mike) and Michael Argus (Les) clown and swagger, strut and pose, their outward shows of over-confidence giving rise to occasional glimpses of vulnerability. In what Berkoff calls ‘The Motorbike Scene’, sex is nothing more than a ride, with the pair turning themselves into every possible motorbike imaginable, climbing on each other’s shoulders, pumping pistons, digging into the handlebars, convinced that ‘sluts and slags’ will always succumb to a pair of wheels. They are the perfect foil to Dad (Chris Bunworth), with his knockabout comedy, racist rants, and deliberate cruelty to Mum.
The first time I saw East, it was the men I remembered, their thuggish nonchalance, their peacock pride. In this production, Hanrahan turns her attention to the women. Lee Mason is heartbreaking as Mum, quietly shrinking away from Bunworth’s taunts, wincing at his callousness, and sharing a pitiful monologue that contrasts dreams of romance and chivalry with the reality of her husband, snoring obliviously beside her. Marissa O’Reilly delivers a sexy, feisty Sylv, more than capable of holding her own against Mike, conscious of her sexual power, yet also of her own powerlessness in a world dominated by men. Mum’s dreary life is all she can look forward to unless she breaks free. Her monologue, in which she longsto be a man, is raw, honest, and filled with desperation for a better life.
Kate Kelly has designed a brilliant set with lines of washing overhanging a small, tenement-like room. To one side, images of the East End are projected. The cast step from the room to take centre stage, as if momentarily escaping their claustrophobic existence. It is a telling piece of choreography.
Some of the references to Britain and East End life can be lost on an Australian audience. There are inside jokes, and much of the comedy comes from an essentially East End way of looking at the world. Perhaps that is one reason why we don’t often see Berkoff plays in Australia – he was last in Melbourne in 2006. But even though some of the witticisms are lost in translation, this is a rare chance to see a little-performed playwright in an exuberant, exhilarating production.
Stephen Berkoff’s East, directed by Peta Hanrahan and presented by Black Water Theatre Productions, runs at Revolt Artspace (Kensington, Victoria) until 9 March 2014. Performance attended 27 February 2014.