East is East arrives at Richmond Theatre this month, staring leading lady and local resident Jane Horrocks. Will Gore finds out why she’s looking forward to it so much
Despite the fact she’s been living in Twickenham for 14 years, Jane Horrocks’s undiluted Lancashire accent is a clear sign that she’s still very much in touch with her northern roots. And playing Ella, the tough matriarch in the hit revival of Ayub Khan-Din’s Salford-set play East is East, which comes to Richmond Theatre in January, is further strengthening that bond.
“I’ve been looking for a play to act in for about five years. I have been doing a lot of television and don’t like to leave it so long normally, and then this came along and I felt like it was something that I really wanted to do”
Jane tells me it’s the kind of show she has been waiting to do for a long time. ‘I’ve been looking for a play to act in for about five years. I have been doing a lot of television and don’t like to leave it so long normally, and then this came along and I felt like it was something that I really wanted to do,’ she says. ‘It’s nice to play an archetypal northern mother who is capable of dealing with many different situations. She’s a classic multi-tasker, a ‘doer’ as we call them up north.’
Most people coming to Richmond Theatre to watch East is East will know the story of the dysfunctional British-Pakistani Khan family from the successful film adaptation, but this new revival, which enjoyed a critically acclaimed run in the West End, is taking the piece back to its theatrical roots (it premiered at the Royal Court in 1996).
The story, set in the 1970s, focuses on the family’s tyrannical father George, played in this production by playwright Khan-Din, and his attempts to ensure his gaggle of kids uphold the traditional values he grew up with in Pakistan. They, on the other hand, are more interested in living as fully integrated Brits and are horrified at the arranged marriages, employment in the family business (a fish and chip shop) and, in one painful case, the circumcision their father wants to inflict on them.
“Some of my friends who have come to watch have said some Asian audience members have looked disturbed at times and have not been laughing when everybody else is because it is their lives on stage”
Jane says she is ‘intrigued’ to see how Richmond audiences respond to the play, with its mix of unbridled comedy and serious exploration of the lives and culture of the Khan family. She is also hopeful that the run attracts people from Hounslow’s Asian community. East is East may have been written prior to 9/11 and everything that has stemmed from it, but she says the reaction so far of many Asian audience members to the issues it raises suggest it is far from dated.
‘Some of my friends who have come to watch have said some Asian audience members have looked disturbed at times and have not been laughing when everybody else is because it is their lives on stage,’ she says. ‘I remember when we did Jim Cartwright’s Road at the Royal Court, and people were able to laugh at the situation of northern unemployment. But when we performed it in Newcastle people didn’t laugh at all. They loved it but it was too close to home and I think that’s the case with some people coming to see East is East who are experiencing similar things to the characters.’
She may be pleased to be part of a show that tells a story from the north of England, but despite its 1970s setting, this is not a world Jane necessarily recognises or was familiar with when growing up in Lancashire. She remembers Asian families in the area but didn’t happen to mix with them and adds that unlike the Khans, she was lucky not to have to use an outdoor loo or tin bath. Jane then laughs when she considers her current family situation and says, ‘Life is tough for the kids in the play because they have to look after themselves. Not like my two namy pamby middle-class kids who have everything done for them.’
Her 14 year and counting stay in nearby Twickenham, where she lives with those ‘namby pamby kids’ and her partner, the TV and theatre writer Nick Vivian, began shortly after she filmed Little Voice, the film that made her name, at Twickenham Studios – the borough’s beautiful green spaces proved a strong lure. ‘I was living in Islington where Hampstead Heath and Primrose Hill were the only big green spaces, and they were absolutely ram jam full in the summertime, it was like sardines for picnickers. But if you go to Marble Hill Park there might be only one family picnicking. It’s wonderful to have that amount of space and you don’t even really need a garden if you live round here. Kew Gardens is wonderful, Richmond Park is superb. We are completely spoiled.’
I ask if she is a regular visitor to the theatre where we are sitting. Not recently, is the answer, but when her teenage children were younger she would often bring them to see shows. ‘Me and my fella would bring the kids to see things like Postman Pat and within five minutes we’d both be asleep,’ says Horrocks. ‘It’s a very good place to sleep, especially at Postman Pat!’
‘Richmond Theatre, a very good place to sleep’; it probably won’t work as a tag line for the East is East poster, but I’m sure tired parents everywhere would empathise with her.
East is East is on at Richmond Theatre from 19-24 January; atgtickets.com