Steven Berkoff’s plays have been described as “in yer face theatre” and East certainly lives up to this billing, providing an hour of non-stop grit, courtesy of student theatre company Hive MCR. Its five actors paint a vivid tableau of working-class life in London’s East End of the 1970s. Passionate delivery, clever choreography and intuitive characterisation does full justice to Berkoff’s brilliant work
Hive MCR is an amateur company in name only, for this production is truly professional. Each cast member has a powerful role and is supported, often Greek chorus-like, by the rest of the troupe. From seductive Sylv who snakes her way voluptuously around the set, to the father figure who harks back to the Battle of Cable Street decrying the “little black bastards moving in next door,” all of the characters have distinctive personalities and stories. The mother figure Mum is played in drag and beneath her somewhat downtrodden exterior is a character of some steel and depth, whilst Les and Mike are typical East End lads destined to remain within a world where violence is never far away.
The banality of family dinners: the Formica table, Crossroads on the telly and Walls pork sausages on the plate, is presented alongside cameos of everyday life. A trip to the sea-side is juxtaposed beside youthful violence and (running through everything), raw sexuality. Packed with strong and at times filthy language, a sexual thread runs through the work. From rape to casual encounters to tired married coupling, all of life is here. This isn’t theatre for the faint of heart. However, it’s immensely powerful and strangely life-affirming. The short scenes are often light on detail but this doesn’t deflect from them packing a punch especially as the characters and their interrelationships develop.
Staging is minimal and the choreography slick. Of particular note is the human Harley Davidson and the fairground scene, where a few clever movements transport the ensemble onto a carousel at Southend. The physicality of the performances is a perfect accompaniment to the often brash content of the work – aside from a fair amount of thrusting, facial expressions and full-body movements are used to full effect.
Berkoff’s verse rattles along at a hectic pace. Peppered with London slang and at times reminiscent of Shakespeare, it’s a rich and delicious soup with multiple cultural and contemporary references. The actors deliver some explosive scenes at breakneck speed, loud and proud. On occasion, the delivery is a little fast but momentum is sustained. The vitality and sheer joy of Berkoff’s vivid and rich language have barely time to register before the audience is swept onwards. Like a theatrical punch in the guts, East leaves you breathless and hankering for more.