Touring – reviewed at Curve Leicester
Over 30 years on, Hanif Kureishi’s tale of cultural and religious conflict, gender constraints and sexual liberty resonates with today’s society in a painfully prescient way – despite the 80s shoulder pads and neon nylon on display. In a co-production with Belgrade Theatre Coventry, Everyman Theatre Cheltenham and Leeds Playhouse, Nikolai Foster and the Curve company’s adaptation of My Beautiful Laundrette has shone a spotlight on the wrongs of yesteryear at a time when, more than ever before in my lifetime, the country seems to be in a state of sinfully wilful regression.
Forgive me for a brief synopsis – I haven’t seen the film, although a classic, so it’s all new to me. Omar (Omar Malik), a down-and-out no-hoper with an alcoholic socialist father of Pakistani heritage, is given a chance to better himself in Thatcher’s world of ruthless capitalism when his Uncle offers him a job in his decrepit laundrette. Amid a divided society terrorised by nationalist skinheads, Omar strikes up an ‘odd-couple’ friendship with his old school bully, Johnny (Jonny Fines). As their relationship blossoms, together they reinvent the laundrette despite opposition from their family and friends.
Kureishi’s text is often brutal, both physically and verbally, but is also peppered with a distinctly British sense of humour that captures the essence of the working-classes in 1980s London while avoiding the temptation to stray into the maudlin. The writer is a deft hand when it comes to innuendo, and the frequent smirks and barely restrained giggles of the cast are infectious. While some characters feel a little broadly drawn – namely Omar’s Uncle Nasser (Kammy Darweish) and Yuppie drug-dealer Salim (Hareet Deol), Laundrette feels unpretentious in its portrayal of modern British multiculturalism.
Thematically, there’s no escaping the comparisons with today’s Brexit and Trump fuelled prejudice. As the far-right encroach ever more into the centre of the national and international political sphere, some of the language evidenced in Laundrette is horrifically familiar, as national pride rhetoric becomes a outlet for overt racism. ‘British jobs for British workers’ – thus reads a slogan on placard at a National Front march. The oft quoted argument of Brexiteers similarly fuses seemingly innocuous economic manifestos with an insidious fear of migrants, people of diverse ethnicity and anyone deemed to be ‘other’.
So too resonates the disparate identities of the characters, the sense of wanting to ‘belong’ to a community without feeling wholly connected. Much is made of Omar’s ‘half’ status, he sees himself as British but is demonised by the white supremacist skinheads. Likewise, he feels adrift from the traditions of his Muslim Pakistani family. He’s a person adrift in a society that is unable to accept social evolution. Elsewhere, Johnny struggles to resolve his feelings of loyalty to his friends, and the twisted sense of ‘purpose’ in the casual violence they revel in, with his growing attachment to the Pakistani community – not only to Omar, but Omar’s Papa (Gordon Warnecke), who has always offered Johnny sage advice, even in the knowledge that he is hated by him for his racial identity. Rounding off Kureishi’s youth-in-limbo is Omar’s cousin and would-be wife, Tania (Nicole Jebeli), a free spirited artist at loggerheads with her conservative, sexist, hypocritical father and her down-trodden mother, whom she loves and admires, but also pities and is repulsed by her culturally-imposed subservience.
While the play is by no means perfect – I felt that several scenes were rather hectic and confusing, some scene changes a slightly clunky, and the ending a little too rosy to be accurate – Foster’s production, once in its stride, is engaging, warm and thought-provoking. Incidental music provided by 80’s icons the Pet Shop Boys helps set the scene and I enjoyed the brief bursts of classic hits such as ‘West End Girls’ and ‘Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money)’. Grace Smart’s design is suitably garish in its mix of day-glo plushness and concrete jungle realism. Bar a few mishaps with a pesky candelabra, the set is probably the most ambitious I’ve seen in Curve’s intimate studio space.
Completing Laundrette’s assets is a core of fine performances. Fines is showing himself to be quite the chameleon following several stints at Curve – from a greased Burger Palace boy, to heartthrob mariner – he puts in a thoughtful performance as sensitive skinhead Johnny, revelling in the multifaceted aspects of the character. Malik is a revelation as Omar, at first quiet, shy and rather mundane, it’s joyous to behold the character coming out of his shell, rebelling and discovering his sense of self over the course of the play. Finally, Jebeli encompasses all the fiery rage of the feminist prototype while maintaining a sense of pride in certain aspects of her heritage. Jebeli’s eleventh hour outburst is a moment of fist-pumping justice that made my heart sing.
Foster’s production, while rather rough-and-ready at times, is an example of pertinent programming and is executed with passion. Unlike the film, My Beautiful Laundrette may not become a classic, but it certainly speaks to the current climate of displacement and opposing views on national identity.
My Beautiful Laundrette plays at Curve, Leicester until 5th October, before playing Belgrade Theatre Coventry, Everyman Theatre Cheltenham, Leeds Playhouse and the Birmingham Rep.
Jonny Fines and Omar Malik in My Beautiful Laundrette.
Credit: Ellie Kurttz.