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King’s Head Theatre, London
PRETTY early on in any Steven Berkoff play, you’re going to have to decide whether to roll with it and enjoy the chaos or to walk out and find some peace and quiet.
Fortunately, the acting excellence of this production of his 1975 offering East provides absolutely no incentive for an early departure.
Whatever the flaws in the play itself — a chopping, changing, roller coaster tale of sex, violence and daily drudgery in a London family whose members simultaneously wallow in and rage against the disappointments of their lives — the collective quality of the cast helps us focus on its occasionally spellbinding attributes.
Boadicea Ricketts, fresh out of drama school, makes a brilliant professional debut in the highly demanding role of young Sylv — earthily and confidently sexy, yet heartbreakingly aware of the limited defences she has at her disposal as she tries to chart her way in a male-dominated world.
Jack Condon, also making his first pro appearance, is impressively feisty as the bored, street-fighting shoe shop assistant Les. And Debra Penny as the perpetually dressing-gowned Mum and Russell Barnett as a frighteningly angry, former Blackshirt Dad top off the production with such a feel of old-school East End authenticity that you can almost smell the liquor and jellied eels.
But the standout performance comes from 25-year-old James Craze as Mike, who copes with the physical and emotional gymnastics of his Jack-the-Lad role as if it had been written directly for him today, rather than being first performed in this very theatre almost two decades before his birth.
There can be no half-measures in East and in this Jessica Lazar-directed production each participant leaves their heart and soul on the boards. It’s difficult not to feel exhausted on their behalf as they take a bow to enthusiastic applause at the end.
East is no easy play to get across and even a slightly under-par effort from the cast has the potential to render it unwatchable.
Gratifyingly, there’s no question of that in a staging which makes the very best of Berkoff’s work.
Runs until February 3, box office: kingsheadtheatre.com
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