There are few plays that manage to be so delightful and discomfiting at the same time as East Is East. Ayub Khan Din's wonderfully vivacious and penetrating autobiographical comedy about growing up as the youngest child in a large, chip-shop-owning Salford family with an English mother and a despotic Pakistani father started life in 1996 at the Royal Court and was made into a popular film three years later.
Sam Yates's splendid revival now in the Trafalgar Transformed Season is notable for several reasons. It brings Jane Horrocks back to stage in a terrific, gutsy-yet-sensitive portrayal of Ella, a woman in the Coronation Street mould of witty, sorely tried resilience (the way she holds her cigarettes away from her at a tilt, as if both hating them and flaunting them, is a spot-on token of her spirit). She shows you a mother torn between a residual, quite merry fondness for her spouse who denies that she has any say (“You not need to know my bloody business, missus”) and a dauntless determination that her children will not be trapped by his Muslim designs for them, such as arranged marriages.
This time, too, the author himself plays the tyrannical George Khan. It's as if Arthur Miller or Eugene O'Neill had taken to stage to embody the semi-fictionalised father-figures in their works. A mixture of cruelly intimate understanding and the desire to hit back informs all these portraits by writer sons. Ayub Khan Din's performance skilfully manages to bring out what is tragicomically impossible about this interfering, overbearing figure the sound of whose approach sends his children (played with immensely appealing, fractious verve here by a crack cast) into wild scrambles of cover-up and air-freshening. But without sentimentalising him in the slightest - the sudden outbursts of wife-beating are sickening - the author lets you see that this man knows deep down that he's a lost, fearful soul, no longer able to keep a grip on the precarious world he created when, with a first wife still in Pakistan, he married a white woman in England.
The play is set in 1971 in the build-up to the Indo-Pakistani War. The twitchy, Parka-wearing 12 year old Sajit (Michael Karim) tells his doctor that he hopes the Indians win “cause me dad'll be pissed off”. The kids identify with their English rather than their paternal heritage – so much so that one of the biggest laughs comes when Sajit races in and shouts: “Mam, quick, the Pakis are here” before the stately arrival of the snobbish, materialist, more Pakistani-than-thou couple into whose clan George want to marry off his oldest son.
Cue a strained tea party that for awkward hilarity surpasses that in My Fair Lady . Sally Bankes, sublimely funny as Ella's staunch friend Annie, drops brick after brick in a cheery effort to wreck negotiations. A lot has happened in the wake of 9/11 to make one wonder whether the equivalents of the Khan children now would more exercised about their identity. It hasn't dated the piece, though, which has prescient touches and is still brilliantly alive in its verbal comedy. A great night out.