Drama critic Aleks Sierz once described Berkoff’s style as “in-yer-face theatre” and the performance of East by Lion Theatre Company was certainly that. It was made clear from quite literally the first minute of the production that this play would be shocking, visceral, and intense as the production opened with Sylv, played by Talor Hanson, singing “my pussy tastes like Pepsi Cola” in a striking rendition of Lana Del Ray’s song, perfectly establishing the tone of the play.
The use of music throughout the production was one of my favourite aspects in this adaptation as it was deployed in such a way that it both enhanced the themes of the play and action on stage, and demonstrated new layers to the characters. The most outstanding use of music was undoubtedly after the rape of Sylv – the most arresting scene of the entire play. Andrew Shires’ characterisation of Mike was phenomenal as his facial expressions and voice oozed a sense of lust that made the audience feel violently uncomfortable yet unable to look away, as he commanded the stage. The direction in this scene was so powerful it felt almost Artaudian as the audience were forced to watch Mike shove Sylv to the floor and cry out “yes, yes, yes, yes, YES” as she lay shaking and sobbing. Both Shires and Hanson were astounding in this scene and credit must be paid to the incredible work of Director Adam Simpson in creating such a formidable production.
The highly talented cast of this innovative production were full of energy throughout the entire piece, with the opening duologue between Les, played by Corinna Harrison, and Mike demonstrating this as the pair worked together, stumbling, bouncing, and marching around the stage in unison and snapping their heads round to the audience shouting obscenities thereby provoking uproarious bouts of laughter.
Furthermore in a play so focused with the issues of entrenched gender stereotypes and the objectification of women it was a refreshing directorial decision to have Les played by a female and Mum played by a male, not only for the social statement but because both managed to play their parts well. One of Harrison’s fantastic monologues was set against beautiful shadow puppetry, as a white screen was drawn across and the stage was lit powerfully from the front. The cast used the depth of the stage to create wonderful images playing with the size of characters, demonstrating the cast’s physical theatre strengths. Equally Henry Fell’s role as Mum was a highlight of the performance as he had the audience in fits of giggles during his dance sequence with Shires.
The thin line between vulgarity and comedy is played upon in the language throughout the play and this line was constantly tested to its limits. However, this play is so much more than its carnality, as at its core Berkoff explores the lives of three young adults, trapped in the rough East End with the figures of Mum and Dad representing the very things they will become if they don’t escape. This play is filled with touching moments and explores the pressure to conform to gender roles. We hear of Les’ fears in a touching monologue where he realises that they get the girls they think they deserve, and he reveals his anxieties about approaching a beautiful woman.
The dedication and hard work of the whole team is made apparent in this unique and difficult play. The cast and creative team of Lion Theatre Company have created a truly ground-breaking piece of student theatre, tackling such a wonderful text and successfully bringing the most challenging and brilliant language to life as Shakespeare meets Cockney.
Photograph: Grace Tseng