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Steven Berkoff: The real East Enders

In his latest play and in an exhibition of photographs, Steven Berkoff revisits his past in the vibrant melting-pot that was riverside London. Michael Coveney reports

Steven Berkoff, who is an unbelievably vital 70 years old this year, lives in the Limehouse Basin, a now fashionable part of the East End of London that was once a festering slum. Unlike his neighbours in Narrow Street, the actor Sir Ian McKellen and the journalist Matthew Parris, Berkoff was born and bred close to his riverside retreat.

Cable Street, scene of the anti-fascist riots of 1936, is just round the corner. Berkoff's Uncle Sam, memorialised in his new play Sit and Shiver, was a hero of those events, when Jews, radicals and dockworkers stood up to Oswald Mosley's blackshirts; Sam is commemorated in a Cable Street mural that Berkoff calls "the greatest piece of art in England - and it's on a wall".

As much an expert at visiting his own past as Alan Bennett or Mike Leigh, Berkoff has written a play about his own family, gathered disputatiously at his father's post-funeral ritual of remembrance; his dad was a tailor who made zoot suits for West Indian immigrants in the post-war era. He is buttressing its presentation at the Hackney Empire with a photographic exhibition of the disappearing East End of his boyhood.

That location was a warren of streets around Whitechapel, mainly Jewish, now Asian but also dominated by posh apartment blocks, business centres and marketing suites. Berkoff was born in Mother Levey's nursing home in Vallance Road, in the heart of the criminal Kray twins' manor. After brief periods in Luton (evacuation during the war) and New York (a doomed mission of "New World, new work" with his parents and older sister, Beryl) he returned to the East End as a kind of outsider.

The family was relocated in a council flat in Manor House. Berkoff attended (and hated) Hackney Downs Grammar School (Harold Pinter's alma mater). After various jobs, he trained as an actor. His local London expanded from Whitechapel - known as "the waste" - across to Hackney and Stamford Hill, but he was always drawn to the East End heartbeat of clubs, theatres, swimming baths and stalls.

Sit and Shiver refers to the Jewish custom of a seven-day domestic observance for the dead. That ceremonial, "sitting shivah," is deliberately misheard in the title, as it was for the young Berkoff who was mystified by the coldness and solemnity of the process. His play is a way of both expressing that dismay, and glorifying the vitality of East End life in those days; a trip down the vibrant Petticoat Lane of poverty and optimism, pickles and bagels, energy and ambition.

What happened to all that? There were 100,000 Jews in the East End even before the last war. It was a vibrant melting-pot with the crucial ingredient of looking outwards. Berkoff's early plays East and West reflect this atmosphere exactly: you enjoyed where you lived, but you were looking to go elsewhere, you went "up west" on a Saturday or a Sunday, you wore your best suit. "This," says Berkoff, "was fantastic, triumphant". Every Sunday he went dancing in the Lyceum off the Aldwych, spruced up in an electric blue zoot suit and stiff white collar.

"We came from the East End, but we were part of Great Britain, of Brighton and Southend and Westcliff. The new East End of Indians and Muslims - and they have made a great contribution - is more protected, more private. They don't have our old chutzpah, the need to strut, the show-off angle." The Jews, in effect, defined the East End in a way it has not been defined since.

Berkoff's Uncle Sam was the sort of articulate, impassioned and inquisitive Communist who transformed the East End. His father's family were from Bucharest, his mother's from Odessa. Sam, according to Berkoff, couldn't stop talking. His conversation was peppered with quotes from Shaw, Kropotkin, Shakespeare, Marx and Lenin. He liked Aldous Huxley, and he met Aldous Huxley. He was a trouser-cutter, and he went blind. Another uncle also went blind, but that was because he was a boxer who had been mauled by the great Jimmy Wilde.

This disappeared world has been remembered many times, but Berkoff's photographs, which he took about 30 years ago, are a vivid record. Here is the dumpy carrier-bag seller of Hessel Street, the honeycomb of balconies and Dutch-style frontages that was scandalously steamrollered; here, the plaintively resigned pickle-packer of Jubilee Street (my own pre-gentrified home alley) in her stained room and stained apron; here, the Dietrich-like Ukrainian good-time lady in her fake-fur coat on the corner of Brick Lane; and here the immensely dignified Petticoat Lane tailor with his second-hand suits on hangers and a tape measure round his neck.

In his photographs, Berkoff is celebrating the individual while remembering an era. So it is with Sit and Shiver, first seen at the New End in Hampstead last year. His manor now is like a ghost town with evocative traces - Hawksmoor, Dickens, the parks, brick vaults - but also with designer flats, ghastly wine bars, access slipways to the river and garage facilities.

His father's shop was in Leman Street, in the same square kilometre as Alie Street (location of the original Half Moon Theatre) and Graces Alley, home of the resurrected Wilton's Music Hall. Berkoff's play, like these names, resonates with the past. Which is why, for all its imperfections - too much shouting, too little plot - Sit and Shiver is important. It's about how people live, what they talk about. It breathes.

And at its centre is a family mystery. The pain, the humiliation, of this may explain why Berkoff himself - married twice, estranged from his sister, with a middle-aged daughter he rarely sees, now with the German pianist Clara Fischer - is so enthralled by his background. His own roots have been transformed into a theatre of real life.

Sit and Shiver is at the Hackney Empire, London E8, 25 January to 18 February (020-8985 2424)