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The slums and ghettoes of London have provided inspiration for generations of artists. Steven Berkoff's East, a hodge-podge collection of abstract scenes and monologues concerning one London family's daily life, draws on the squalid conditions and pervasive violence that spawned works from Oliver Twist to A Clockwork Orange. Conscious of this tradition, East makes an early reference to its setting as the turf "the blessed Jack" stalked. The play concerns the East End of London as much as the people who live in it.
The play's dark humor and provocative situations make for an unsettling and thoroughly captivating production. Director Katya Nelhams-Wright blends a talented cast and interesting special effects without letting one dominate the other.
Given the loose format of the narrative, the actors must bear the burden of making the play cohesive. Their consistently arresting performances accomplish this task admirably.
David Levine, as the youth Mike, growls and sneers on an endless quest for new thrills. His resonant voice lingers with menace as he reads his lines, a hilarious mixture of Shakespeare and punk lingo. Mike's companion, Les (Greg Clayman), contrasts with Mike's colorfulness. Clayman's portrayal is less flamboyant than Levine's, but he channels equal energy into Les' edgy and twitching pent-up hate. This hate surfaces at key moments, as when Les' releases his fury in derisive impressions of his ignorant boss.
Both men pursue Sylv, played by Elizabeth Price. Price captures Slyv's delight in seeing the men fight over her. Such moments of delight are fleeting in the face of her lack of hope at ever achieving independence. Price is able to alternate moments of giggly joy and deep despair with ease.
Although his part is small, Bryan Van Gorder proves memorable as Mike's "Mum." The mother dreams of a life of art and manners as an escape from her marriage. Richard Nash as the bitter husband provides the play's best moment with his demonstration of a 1939 riot using his lunch. As he spews hatred for the Jews he marched against, he spews cupcake, strawberry jam, and hot cross buns all over the stage and the audience.
David R. Gammons' garish set matches the play's bleak tone. Covered in graffitti and enhanced by slide-projected insults and blurry photos, it is lurid and angry. The lighting, too, adds atmosphere--sometimes intimate, sometimes glaringly bright.
East may strike some as too bleak and profane. The play does not provide much hope that its characters will ever escape poverty, at least not without opening the brothel they plan to open at the end. Many of the men's exchanges are sexist and/or homoerotic. But the script does let its females respond and make counter-attacks of their own.
The passion and desperation of East's characters reflect the spirit-crushing poverty of the East End. East is a stark portrait of this neighborhood which continues to endure in our collective imagination.
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