It’s the 1970s in London’s East End, and Mike, Les, and Sylv live lives embroiled in sex, violence, and boredom. Almost forty-five years after its Edinburgh Fringe debut, these young upstarts are revived in ECA’s Wee Red Bar, a perfectly intimate setting for this dark tale.
Steven Berkoff’s script – fully titled Elegy for the East End and its Energetic Waste – is not for the faint-hearted. The combination of vulgar London slang and verse with Shakespearean, Falstaff-esque dialogue, often make for uncomfortable viewing. Mike and Sylv’s explicit encounter sees the two languages meld together into dark seduction, though ultimately ending with a ‘zip up’ and move on. The dialogue frequently spirals into outright racism, anti-Semitism, and misogyny. In the case of the latter, the controversial content is salvaged by the production’s female cast members. Scarlett Stitt shines as Sylv, particularly in her ‘I’d like to be a fella!’ monologue, problematising the care-free, often juvenile attitude to sex and life of the men around her. Equally, Ishbel McLachlan’s Mum is a comical, though unfortunate, figure, condemned to a restricted home life and gassy husband. McLachlan’s impeccable comic timing ramps up Mum’s unexpected sexual encounters in the cinema to sheer hilarity.
Stark black outs between the episodes are smoothly transitioned by nimble-fingered Eve Simpson on the piano, which lend the production a charming rag-time character. Accompanied by Sylv and Mike’s near-robotically portrayed ‘love story’, these quirky transitions only add to the production’s often absurd character. The five-strong cast excel in their physicality. Occasionally, they burst into traditional London East End verse, performed with strained face at deafening volume. The final rendition of ‘Daisy Daisy’ is near haunting.
East’s content is difficult – whether for the viewer, or the performer. Nevertheless, the cast of the Edinburgh University Shakespeare Company certainly rise to the challenge.
East runs at the Wee Red Bar until 21 November 2019.