First Night: Comic Berkoff in bashing form

`East' Vaudeville Theatre London

DAD'S CHIP-FILLED belly is so vast it seems to dominate the family dinner-table. He smashes his invective home with an HP sauce bottle, invoking Oswald Mosley with passion as he revels in homely anti-Semitism. Around him, the family has stopped listening. The boys are revving up for their next shag, while Mum is dusting haplessly, absorbed in her own grey dreams.

Steven Berkoff's East was first performed at Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre in 1975. Twenty-five years on, he has proved as a director that the play can still burn with the furious comic energy with which it was originally written.

From the moment when a beam lights the stereotypical old-fashioned working- class silhouettes - Mum's curlers trapped in a headscarf, Sylv's peroxide pony-tail, Les and Mike's jaws stuck out firmly with blind defiance - it is clear the audience is going to have the humour thrust down its throat Berkoff-style.

Soon Matthew Cullum and Christopher Middleton are making you laugh with the kind of facial expressions and movements that leave cartoonists no room for improvisation, while Mum, Dad, and Sylv provide a chorus of ruefully animated apathy.

The plot is simple - Les and Mike have both slept with the same "bird" (Sylv) and after shedding copious amounts of each other's blood, have bonded in shag-obsessed brotherhood. Their accounts of their adventures and conquests are set against a claustrophobic working-class world, in which Mum and Dad sit sucked into their own blinkered fantasies.

The play mixes elements of Greek drama, Shakespeare, and classical-music references with East End gobbiness - as if Berkoff is bashing the heads of high culture and low culture together.

His continual in-your-face style has led to increasingly cynical questions about whether his aggression outweighs his skill, but this production is evidence of the subtler side of his brash talent. Cullum and Middleton are the highlights of a cast that seems to have sprung directly from Berkoff's brain, with its energetic forcefulness. Jonathan Linsley is a stunning flatulent Dad, Tanya Franks revels in her coy tartiness, while Edward Bryant as Mum steals entire scenes with his understated drag act. Visually and verbally the evening is guaranteed to knock you off your polite perch with admiration and laughter. RACHEL HALLIBURTON

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