Ella and George

Sophie Stanton as Ella and Tony Jayawardena as George. Pictures: Pamela Raith Photography

East is East

Birmingham Rep


Salford, 1971; back to backs, working class, with Aunty Annie having a part time job laying out the local deceased, Holland’s pies, Park Drive fags, and some 5,000 miles or so away India and Pakistan at war sparked by the Bangladesh Liberation conflict.

Now, to be honest, in 1970’s Salford it’s a conflict that comes just below paint drying in interest value, apart from in the case of Tony Jayawardena’s George Khan, that is.

George is the head of the “Paki family who run the chippy” as they are seen – remember this is 1971 when PC was the rank below sergeant in the local constabulary.

George came to Britain as a proud Indian 40 years ago, but with partition, is now a staunch Pakistani and is trying to maintain a culture of strict patricide on his family of five boys and one girl.

It is a culture where wife and children are expected to obey George without fail or question.

The only problem is that wife Ella, played by Sophie Stanton, isn’t Pakistani, she is Lancastrian, and will only obey so far, while Aunty Annie played by Rachel Lumberg, is even more Lanky. She works in George’s chippy and her idea of obeying her husband, you suspect, is more along the lines that she has him well trained.


George sees himself as master of all her surveys, but the times they are a changing

In the first act George is amusing, an almost genial character with his fractured English, bloody this and bloody that and a simplistic view of what he sees as his world, a character closely observed by writer Ayub Khan Din from his own Salford upbringing in the 1970s with a Pakistani father and English mother.

In the second act George's traditional Islamic culture of blind obedience to father and husband is challenged and his frustration and bewilderment at his natural order under threat spills over into violence, demanding respect by the fist – much in the same way as Pakistan’s attitude to East Pakistan, soon to become Bangladesh.

His children were not born in Kashmir, not steeped in centuries old culture and in general they paid not much more than lip service to religion, the visits to the mosque, the endless relatives.

The youngest is Sajit, played with ticks and shakes by Noah Manzoor. He has brought shame on the family, or to be honest, merely on George’s standing at the mosque and his clinging to tradition, by not being circumcised and retaining his “tickle-tackle”.

Sajit, who lives in a parka, we discover dived head first into a somewhat shallower than expected cast iron pool on holiday in Rhyl. With a bump on his head the size of a “mills bomb” doctors were called and declared he would be fine, which was about as wrong a diagnosis as you can get. Poor old Sajit has far more problems up top than his tickle-tackle below.


Noah Manzoor as Sajit, hidden from the world in his parka

Then there was the eldest, a sixth son, Nazir, who we never meet. He has been disowned by George after he ran away from an arranged marriage and set up his own life as a hairdresser in Eccles.  

And it is the attempt at arranged marriages that creates the second half flash point after George meets Mr Shah, played by Irvine Iqbal, a businessman with a chain of butcher’s shops and a semi-detached house with (steady, brace yourself) TWO extensions.

He also has two daughters he is wanting to marry off, or the less diplomatic might say he was trying to get rid of. Their portraits give ugly a bad name, and one suspects just having the pictures in sight was enough to curdle the milk for the tea as Mr Shah arrives to look over his prospective son-in-laws Abdul and Tariq.

Iqbal, incidentally, also plays the doctor who removes Sajit’s tickle-tackle. Being Indian he is not fully trusted by staunchly partitioned George. But it is the doctor who recognises that Sajit needs more treatment than religiously demanded surgery.

Abdul and Tariq are brothers, but see the world differently. Tariq, played by Gurjeet Singh, sees himself as English, and along with sister Meenah, Amy-Leigh Hickman, he is happy to eat bacon and sausages, spraying frantically to hide the smell in case George returns.

He has no intention of being involved in an arranged marriage, declaring he is not going to “marry a Paki”. He lives the life of any young lad from Salford and will go along with family as long as it does not impinge too much on his Western lifestyle. Threaten that with, say, an arranged marriage, and he is off to stay with Nazir. His bags are packed just in case.

Abdul, played by Assad Zaman, has a dilemma. He likes the idea of structure and family, and even the order that religion brings, and although an arranged marriage is not ideal, he might go along with it to avoid anyone else in the family being hurt or the boat being rocked too much.


Amy-Leigh Hickman as Meenah, (left), Gurjeet Singh as Tariq, Joeravar Sangha as Maneer, and Adonis Jenieco as Saleem

While Tariq sees himself as English, Abdul is more pragmatic. The children, as mother Ella points out, are “half-caste” – remember we are in the 1970s. A white mother and Pakistani father leaves them in limbo, not fully accepted by either white or Pakistani society.

Something brought home to Abdul when he ends up in a pub, laughing and joking, even telling “Paki” jokes until he realises they are laughing at him.

The pair epitomize the clash of cultures, traditional Pakistani or modern Western. Tariq the latter, Abdul, inbetween, and father George, 40 years after arriving, still not embracing a British way of life – despite owning a chippy.

Maneer, Joeravar Sangha, is the most obedient son, although you suspect there is some reluctance there, but the bond of family, honour and respect for a father, is stronger than in the rest of the children.

Then there is Saleem, Adonis Jenieco, who is living the biggest lie of all. A college student, George believes he is training to be an engineer, an acceptable profession, unlike hairdressing, but, in reality, Saleem is an art student, something which is to come out during the visit of Mr Shah to offload his daughters – a revelation . . . and a sculpture that leads to a near riot.

This is a play first premiered at the Rep studio in 1996, produced by Tamasha Theatre Company in a co-production with the Rep and the Royal Court, and was revived at the Rep on the main stage in 2009 directed by Iqbal Khan, who directs this 25th anniversary production.

Although set in the 1970s, 25 years on the play still has relevance, still shines a light on  society, whether it concerns mixed race marriages which leave children in a racial limbo, or immigrant parents with a culture and traditions they cling to but which their children find alien as they want to grow up as part of modern Britain.

There is plenty of humour, with Aunty Annie having some of the best lines, and at times a sadness at the family conflict. There is even sympathy for the bullying George, who is fighting, literally at times, to maintain a way of life wired into him from birth. He loves his wife and kids, but only on his strict and unwavering terms and has no plan B when that fails.

The acting is superb, each character believable, on a set from Bretta Gerecke which has simple furnishings enhanced by a set of hanging screens which give us black and white scenes of Salford and chippies. A quarter century on, East is East still has the humour to entertain wrapped in the thoughtful drama to make an impact. To 25-09-21 and then to The National Theatre, co-producers, next month.

Roger Clarke


Index page Rep Reviews A-Z Reviews by Theatre