Sam Yates. Never heard of him? Neither had I until I saw his cracking revival of Ayub Khan Din's East is East last night at Trafalgar Studios. This is is his first West End show, but he's clearly a young director to watch on the evidence of this fast-paced and sure-footed production.
East is East was set in 1971 but written in 1996. Since then a lot of things have changed, not only in the British Asian community but also in theatre, so staging a revival of an 18-year-old play isn't as simple as it looks. Wisely, Yates has resisted the temptation to update the play, and has successfully coped with the challenge of having the author play the leading role -- again, something that isn't always straightforward.
Ayub Khan Din's creation George Khan, the authoritarian Pakistani father with an English wife and a disintegrating family, is a larger-than-life monster who also has a vulnerable streak. He's a bully who hits his long-suffering wife Ella and his children, and demands instant obedience. When he doesn't find it, he can't cope. One of this production's many virtues is to show there is real tenderness and love between George and Ella, despite his behaviour. The interplay between the two is a delight to watch. Jane Horrocks, as the mother who is trying to protect her children but keep her marriage intact, brings great depth to the portrayal of Ella. And the result is very funny. Excruciatingly so.
This production features some terrific acting in a classic play which is far more than a period piece; as always, it is a joy to see Jane Horrocks on stage. The Khan children are played by Taj Atwal, Nathan Clarke, Michael Karim, Ashley Kumar and Darren Kuppan, who effortlessly transmit the feel of a real group of siblings. As George, Ayub Khan Din shows he's just as good a performer as a writer, and there is great support from Sally Bankes as Auntie Annie.
As an ensemble piece, it is just pitch perfect; you can always sense when actors believe totally in what they are doing and in the director's vision. But where Yates really scores is in his ability to structure the play and switch between scenes with split-second timing; with the help of the cast the stage set by Tom Scutt, overshadowed by a shabby framework of red brick Salford houses and back yards, transforms itself instantly from one setting to the next without missing a beat. I have never seen actors move chairs, tables and sofas around with quite such a level of deftness. The impact of these lightning changes is not just technical, because they reinforce one of the themes of the play. The moment George approaches the door of the house or the family fish and chip shop, his family rushes around frantically to create what turns out to be a fantasy world built on fear. As the fantasy world he has built crumbles, George is humiliated. His fixed vision of what family life should be turns out to be built on sand. While he is acting in one play, his children are acting in another that he cannot understand.