The East End is not what it once was. Outside the King’s Head Theatre – where Steven Berkoff’s drama East made its London debut in 1975 – is a street of burrito bars, Itsus and wifi-enabled park benches. In Atticist’s revival of the play, the city is depicted as a steamy, seamy jungle of sex, violence, poverty, and existential despair.
Berkoff’s play remains a remarkable work, an unapologetically punchy portrait of a bygone age. It savagely evokes a world of bloody, booze-fuelled fights round the back of the Lyceum, of shitty day trips to Southend, and of sly gropes on the number 38 bus between Mount Pleasant and Balls Pond Road. Of misogyny, racism, and ugly, uninspiring futures.
And Berkoff being Berkoff, it’s all realised in a riotous, rollicking whirlwind of hybridised Shakespeare and slang. Cusses and classical references gleefully rub shoulders throughout.
Jessica Lazar’s inventive production is no less remarkable. Her five-strong cast wriggle and writhe, spit and snarl their way across the intimate, sparse space like grotesque marionettes, all to a cheery Cockney piano accompaniment. James Craze and Jack Condon are particularly obscene, but kudos too to Boadicea Ricketts and Debra Penny, who eke out slivers of sympathy from their relentlessly objectified female characters.
Perhaps what is most significant, however, is how East emerges in Brexit Britain. It’s still a visceral vision of a festering society, but in its depiction of a community forced from deprivation to despair, it actually seems remarkably prescient. Lest we forget, just a minute’s walk away, the 38 bus still wends its way down the Essex Road.