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Theatre review: East

Director Jessica Lazar gets it right for this Steven Berkoff revival

Kings Head

    Boudicea Ricketts as Sexy Sylve
    Boudicea Ricketts as Sexy Sylve (Picture Alex Brenner)

    This revival of Steven Berkoff’s East End play returns to the theatre where it received its London premiere more than 40 years ago.

    I should know by now never to underestimate Berkoff’s potency. And yet, it can be hard not to roll your eyes at knowing exactly what you are about to receive: the Berkoff aesthetic that means physicality, exaggerated gesture, poetic and profane language and characters bordering on caricatures.

    It can all be too much, though not here. Behind this production, by the young theatre group Atticist, you can sense the hand of director Jessica Lazar preventing the evening from being taken over by the gurning and grotesquerie that so often defines a Berkoff show.

    Mike (James Craze in the role last played in this theatre by Berkoff himself) and Les (Jack Cordon) become best mates after nearly killing each other in a street fight. Sexy Sylve (Boadicea Ricketts) has a secret yearning to be a bloke — not in the transgender sense but just to be sexually and socially freer — and Mum and Dad (Debra Penny and Russell Barnett) are yer bang out of order working class far-right sympathisers. Or at least Dad is. At the dinner, he reminisces about the march of Oswald Mosley’s fascists, his fists pounding the table.

    Berkoff’s East End no longer exists. During the first half, your inner sceptic may wonder whether this play is just a piece of social and dramatic history. But Lazar’s final flourish — a rush of sound that transports you through time — reinforces the impression that Berkoff’s xenophobic East Enders are not extinct. Mostly they just moved. Then they voted for Brexit.

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