Twenty-five years ago, ‘East is East’ was first performed and we asked some of the original talent behind that Tamasha Production what the play means to them now...
By Suman Bhuchar
THE ORIGINAL CAST of the show, featured Nadim Sawalha as George; Linda Bassett as Ella; Paul Bazely as Abdul; Jimi Mistry as Tariq: Emil Marwa as Maneer; Chris Bisson as Saleem; Zita Sattar as Meenah; Imran Ali as Sajid and Lesley Nicol as Auntie Annie and Kriss Dosanjh as Doctor /Mr. Shah. For the 1997 remount at the Theatre Royal Stratford East (TRSE), and then the West End, the part of George Khan was played by Nasser Memarzia while Auntie Annie was played by Gillian Hanna.
Kristine Landon-Smith (pictured below), who directed the show, told www.asianculturevulture.com:
“It meant a lot to Tamasha to have such a success and gain such visibility. It was a thrilling journey and no doubt about it put us firmly on the map. It had a great legacy and it is companies like Tamasha and the commitment to these stories and telling them with nuance that feed the theatre ecology.
It was absolutely wonderful to find all those young actors and be instrumental in their journeys. For many of them it was their first really significant piece of work and it was an honour to be part of that. Linda, Nadim and Lesley were all towering actors who could really hold the core of the work in the right way.
There is a lot of complexity in the play and one was always walking on a tightrope making sure that all those nuances came through – in that it was a situation comedy and did not descend into farce or a sit com. As long as you got the scene in the chip shop right where the father breaks down and cries, and the scene where he embraces his son after a night out at the pub, audiences saw the complexity of the father – a man who himself was lost, a man who felt thoroughly misunderstood in the milieu where he was living and you could see he lashed out in anger and frustration of that.”
ACV also caught up with designer, Sue Mayes who had worked on all of Tamasha’s plays to date.
“I designed both sets and costumes for the original production of ‘East is East’. A very enjoyable part of the project was the research.
I made a trip up to Salford where the play is set and although the original streets where Ayub (Khan Din, the writer) grew up, are long gone, the local reference library had extensive photographic records, street by street.
I used these pictures in the design. I also went up to Leeds to visit the offices of The Fish Friers Gazette, where back copies of their trade magazine had pictures of the sort of equipment around in the 1970’s. Old mail order catalogues such as Littlewoods proved a very good source for details of clothes, props and furniture of the period.
The set consisted of two room settings side by side, a living room and the chip shop for Act 1 and living room and a parlour for Act 2. Due to the restrictions on space, the rooms ended up roughly the same size as the originals which meant that, with Kristine’s clever blocking, there was a very effective portrayal of what it must have been like for such large family to live in such small house. ‘East is East’ was a very successful show and a pleasure to design.”
Sudha Bhuchar (pictured below), co-artistic director of Tamasha also shared some reflections.
“At the time it was a huge turning point for the company in how we were viewed by others and the mainstream. We became ‘People to watch out for’ but personally we felt passionate about all our projects in the same way.
Brian McMaster (now Sir Brian who also wrote McMaster report for Arts Council of England in 2008) director of the Edinburgh International Festival (EIF), phoned out of the blue, and offered us the opening slot of the 1997 international festival purely on the success of East is East. It was to mark the 50th anniversary of the Indian Partition and also of the EIF.
Brian trusted us to come up with a show without any interference, and we produced ‘A Tainted Dawn’ and then a few years later, he gave us a slot to open ‘Strictly Dandia’, again based on our credentials. There was a lot of noise about ‘Balti Kings’ we did in 2000 and it sold out everywhere. (This was co-written by Bhuchar and Shaheen Khan about the ‘balti industry’ in Birmingham and opened at the Rep) Could it be the next East is East we thought and Working Title were courting us to make it into a film for a while – but I think the absolute cultural specificity of it at the time was not something people were ready for. ‘East is East’ ‘crossed over’ more comfortably.”
ACV: Twenty five years later what does this means in terms of the British Asian theatre story?
“‘East is East’ is a classic and will always be revisited but like for us at Tamasha when people would go when’s the next ‘East is East’, we always felt that theatre people can be lazy and not look beyond something.
And now a lot of artists are saying. Yes, there’s ‘East is East’ but there are many brilliant plays in our canon and a revival like this should open the door to that conversation.
The theatre world is unaware of what exists and if it is very culturally specific – they may not ‘get’ it and not see the value of the writing. And much work is not published. So that is a dialogue to invite. And 25 years later, South Asian writers and companies are having the same concerns.
I hope this revival can act as a catalyst to open the door and explore the legacy of the South Asian theatre canon that already exists and awaits rediscovery.”
*See ‘East is East’: A Personal Look by Suman Bhuchar – Asian Culture Vulture