What kind of play might a disaffected young Pakistani write today about growing up in the north of England? Something rather different to ‘East is East’, there is little doubt, yet Ayub Khan-Din’s spikily amusing 1996 script still prods the zeitgeist with its bittersweet observations on the contradictions inherent in bringing Pakistani culture to the shivering streets of Salford.
No talk of jihad or double lives led on the internet worries the Khan family in the 1960s. But in a small house with six sons – each with a different vision of the future – a combined crisis of splintered cultures and competing ideas of masculinity threatens to tear this family apart.
Sam Yates directs the action with pace and flair, as we gaze down on Tom Scutt’s cosily claustrophobic set, comprised of a red brick backdrop, nine battered black wooden doors, and a couple of sofas that look ready for retirement. The central, overtly comic dilemma surrounds Sajit’s foreskin – or ‘tickle-tackle’ as his father calls it – which has somehow remained intact despite the fact that he is now an adolescent. As Michael Karim’s Sajit darts frantically backwards and forwards from the coal shed – cocooned in a smelly Parka – to evade circumcision, other family dramas spin and swirl around him. Nathan Clarke’s Saleem dreams of being an artist (with distinctly Brit-art tendencies), Tariq and Abdul dabble in the dark arts of western adolescence, Taj Atwal’s sparky Meenah satirises everything around her, and Maneer is teased for his devoutness.
Though the action is male-dominated, there is little doubt where the heart of this play beats. Jane Horrocks – as Ella Khan, the white woman who has married a Pakistani man and produced his seven children – vividly and hilariously demonstrates the wiry resolve needed to hold everything together. It’s not just her children who are consumed by a crisis of identity but also her husband – played by Khan-Din himself – torn between his paternal duties and his obsession with TV reports that Pakistan is tearing itself apart. There are no resolutions to this evening, just a series of fascinating and often painful questions, all of which remain searingly relevant to the increasingly complex status quo today.