Even if Ayub Khan Din’s ”East Is East” were a lot less good than it is, and it’s pretty terrific, it would be mandatory viewing, since how often these days does one get to see Linda Bassett? In the ’80s, this warm-eyed, acutely intelligent actress was an invaluable component of the Royal Court’s ”Serious Money” and ”Aunt Dan and Lemon,” both of which she took to New York. Now, she’s back at her de facto London home, giving another major performance in a play whose writer looks to be no slouch, either.
Playing Ella, the northern English wife of an alternately fierce and fearful Pakistani, George (Nadim Sawalha), the actress cuts an astonishing figure of affection cloaked in exasperation. ”Go on, get lost,” she says to one of her six mixed-race children (a seventh has left home), all of whom are growing up in 1970 Salford — the play, the author’s first, is largely autobiographical — in a barely modern house with scant indoor plumbing but lots of maternal concern.
The truth of Ella’s feelings emerges in impulsive hugs and a fretful empathy — a bark without a bite — as she staves off emotion in the constant dash to be of use in the family chip shop. Small wonder that it is George’s abusive treatment of Ella that prompts the breakthrough one son so desperately needs: As written, Ella is one part Brecht to two parts Alan Bennett, with a self-knowledge atypical of either playwright’s heroines. And as performed, she occupies a league apart.
Bassett is the irresistible, sometimes heartbreaking, pivot of a play that radiates all manner of good cheer even when the family dynamic turns dangerously sour. An actor (he co-starred in ”Sammy and Rosie Get Laid”), Khan Din has a remarkable sense of dramatic shape and mood for a novice playwright, and he is helped by Kristine Landon-Smith, whose direction honors the play’s farcical energy — with so large a family in so small a space, how could farce not be a factor? — as well as its tremulous compassion.
George, for instance, is never a mere villain. Living in the U.K. 40 years despite having another wife back home, he remains a Muslim out of place and out of time, with children who dress like the Beatles (well, some of them) and who are hopeful of a future beyond the arranged marriages George dreams of as a means of social advancement.
If George senses rebellion on his doorstep, so it is in his native country, as reports of bloodshed in east Pakistan filter through on the news. ”The whole world [is] against Pakistan,” he says ruefully, under siege at home and abroad. Sawalha makes rendingly clear that in lashing out at his wife, he is really savaging himself.
Khan Din weaves numerous stories into his narrative, each one satisfactorily worked out. While 12-year-old Sajjid (Imran Ali) obsesses over the circumcision he should have had at birth, Saleem (Chris Bisson) plans to be an artist and doesn’t take too kindly to being passed off as an engineer when his brothers’ prospective father-in-law comes to call. This last scene brings the evening richly to the boil. Mr. Shah (Kriss Dosanjh) turns out to be a not wholly unsympathetic snob who provides an apt target for Ella and her no less feisty friend, Annie (Lesley Nicol, superb).
Using details like Sajjid’s tenacious clinging to his parka — Ali, the actor playing the part, looks as if he is retreating within it — Khan Din is a writer who can make every plot strand count. On the evidence of one play, he can be mentioned alongside August Wilson as a storyteller who knows how to wag every tale.
”East Is East” transfers early next year to the Theater Royal, Stratford East, a far larger venue, where it will run from Feb. 5 to March 8. There can be little better theatrical news with which to ring in 1997.