Director Iqbal Khan talks about bringing Ayub Khan-Din’s acclaimed comedy-drama back to The REP.  

As theatres in the region open up after the Covid-19 hiatus, the Birmingham Rep has announced it will be reviving Ayub Khan Din’s East Is East in September. So it’s fitting that when What’s On catches up with Iqbal Khan - the director of the upcoming production - it’s the day after he’s finally been able to enjoy the simple thrill of sitting in an audience once again.

“I came to see the Birmingham Royal Ballet triple bill at the Rep yesterday,” says Iqbal. “There was at least 60% of people in there; it was absolutely extraordinary.” 

Birmingham-born Iqbal is very much looking forward to returning to the city to direct one of his favourite plays. Set in early-1970s Salford, East Is East world-premiered at the Rep in 1996 and focuses on the Khan family: George, a pre-war immigrant from Pakistan, his English wife, Ella, and their children. 

The play examines the challenges faced by each character as George battles to maintain his traditional Pakistani values in the face of ever-changing forces, both in the home and further afield.

“East Is East is a play that everybody will connect to,” explains Iqbal. “It’s not just about the race differences and the experience of being bi-racial in England, it’s also about families and young people having their dreams, their parents trying to guide them or control them, whilst also allowing them freedom. 

“One of the children is an artist, one of them wants to be a good son, the other one wants to be a revolutionary. It’s a great play about families that everyone who’s seen the film or the play connects to directly. 

“Ayub has placed it at a time when Pakistan is losing East Pakistan to the Indians, so George feels like someone who is losing himself. He’s having this crisis of identity and is therefore trying to hold his world together and force it into a certain kind of shape.” 
While George as portrayed in the 1999 film version of East Is East is a difficult man for viewers to warm to, Iqbal recognises the light and shade of the character: “The drama is of a man who’s going through an identity crisis, and his wife understands that. His wife is very strong, really tough, and ultimately very generous. She accedes to him, not because she’s a put-upon wife - she respects him and loves him - but she knows that he’s going through challenging times. He’s very vivid and vibrant, and yes, he can be belligerent, but he’s a great storyteller, very colourful and a lot of fun to be around.” 

While George is a dominant character in the play, Sajit, the youngest member of the family, performs a crucial role, spending most of his time on stage hiding behind an iconic item of ’70s clothing: the parka.

“The play was written out of Ayub’s experience. A lot of it is inspired by his own family, and Sajit, that little boy in the parka, is Ayub. I think he’s looking back on his life, thinking about his father and thinking about those challenges, trying to make sense of it with objectivity, but also with compassion.” 

The parka was a ubiquitous anorak with a fur-lined hood that was worn by young boys in the early 1970s. It is one of several details in the play that places East Is East in that time period; in 1971, to be precise. Others, such as a popular inflatable toy - the Space Hopper - and a particular brand of biscuit - Maryland Cookies - are also evocative of the decade. 

For Iqbal, this is a key point: “Those details are important. It’s one of those plays that I don’t think you can update, because it’s very much about a certain time in history and a very real experience, because a bi-racial couple was a very unusual thing back then. But if you tried to update that experience, you’d lose the potency and the unusualness of that. It was a very interesting, vibrant time, so yeah, it’s great to honour all the details of 1971 Salford. 
"Growing up, my family were exactly the same in terms of how we were embracing western culture, music and freedoms, and the tensions that went with that - as well as the notion of a homeland, and traditions that didn’t seem appropriate here anymore, but which were, in some way, still important as a part of our identities.

“The play feels even more relevant now, in terms of what George is going through, what the kids are going through, in terms of identity politics now; what tribes we belong to and what it means to be British. What are your responsibilities to some old idea of homeland, when you’ve actually been unpacked fully here for a generation or two now? All these questions are rising again. The play deals with it very seriously, in a very nuanced way, with great joy and with great humanity.”

For any audience member who saw Iqbal’s 2009 revival of East Is East at the Rep, this new production - marking the 25th anniversary of the play’s world premiere at the Centenary Square venue - will be a distinctive piece of theatre.

“It’s the same play but a completely different version of it, because I’m 10 years older, it’s a new company, Birmingham is not the Birmingham it was 10 years ago, we’re coming out of a certain time, and there’s an ache for being together, sharing a laugh and telling important stories. Design-wise, it’ll look very different, so I’m convinced that, if anyone saw it 12 years ago, they’ll have a very different experience this autumn.” 

East Is East shows at Birmingham Repertory Theatre from 3 to 25 September. For further information, and to book tickets, visit: 

Interview by Steve Taylor