My Beautiful Laundrette – Review – Leeds Playhouse
By Eve Luddington, October 2019
Who’d have thought a 1985 movie about racism, cultural clashes and an inter-racial gay relationship, firmly set in Thatcher’s Britain, would make such a scarily relevant stage-play today? Sad to say, Hanif Kureishi’s adaptation of his own film script, despite retaining its original 1980s context, speaks of burning contemporary issues.
My Beautiful Laundrette follows Omar, a Pakistani lad, as he rises to the challenge of turning his Uncle Nasser’s dilapidated laundrette into a going concern. When he encounters a gang of racists, Omar recognises one of them as former school mate, a white youth named Johnny. Violence is avoided when the pair connect. They go on to transform the business together and to fall in love.
The meat of the play is in the attitudes and behaviour of those around them. In a series of short episodic scenes, written as a roller-coaster of emotion peppered with humour, Kureishi skilfully weaves a panoply of issues into the story, using a set of easily identifiable characters.
“Humanity and empathy”
All the females are women of colour: their different responses to life circumstances and cultural expectations are revealed with humanity and empathy. Omar’s Papa and his Uncle Nasser are both disillusioned by the country they idealised as boys in Pakistan. Left-wing widower, Papa (played by Gordon Warnecke who was Omar in the film), has turned to drink. Resourceful, upbeat Nasser has embraced Thatcherite values and in those terms, he’s successful because he’s wealthy. His business partner, Salim, justifies his drug-dealing by claiming, ‘Drugs are the purest form of capitalism.’
But, whatever their situation, all these characters’ lives are haunted by racists. Yes, many of the issues in this play are as urgent today as they were in the 1980s. I saw it on the day official figures revealed an 11% rise in racial hate crime in the past year.
This, the first major UK production of the stage play, is presented by Leeds Playhouse, Curve Leicester, Belgrade Theatre Coventry and Everyman Theatre Cheltenham, and directed by Nikolai Foster.
The new Courtyard Theatre is opened up to reveal an enormous stage and Grace Smart’s visually interesting set. On wheels, washing machines, a bed and scaffolds, provide multiple locations. Immovable is the grey concrete backdrop: two hills of washers and soap suds, suggesting the divide between two cultures in the barren London landscape? – spanned by a slim bridge. Ben Cracknell’s lighting design, with neon signs, lifts the drabness. With a cast of nine committed actors, all the elements are in place. But, for me, they don’t meld together and so the production doesn’t quite gel.
Nikolai Foster has chosen a heightened style for a play that doesn’t need it. The impact of the design remains purely visual and, at times, it seems too busy to be focused. Many of the characters are presented as shouty stereotypes: the actors are working hard, particularly Kammy Darweish as Nasser and Cathy Tyson as his mistress, Rachel, but they don’t entirely convince because their interactions lack authenticity. And, although blind casting is generally a reassuring sign that multi-racial Britain is alive and well nowadays in the theatre, if not society, it’s difficult to accept as one of the racist aggressors, an actress of colour.
“Some exceptional moments”
The subtler portrayals of the lovers are more successful. Omar Malik conveys well Omar’s awakening from an innocent and bored detachment, and his journey to passion and loyalty. Jonny Fines draws us in very effectively as Johnny whose negative attitudes and energies are challenged and slowly transformed by purpose and love.
There are some exceptional moments of action which allow the power of this story to speak as it should. When British-born Tania (Nicole Jebeli) is presented by her mum (Balvinder Sopal) with the choice of marrying her cousin Omar or being taken to Pakistan to find a husband, I shared the conflicted feelings of both women. Her plea to Omar, to ‘rescue’ her, is poignant. The racists’ singing of ‘There’ll Always Be an England’ as they raise their ‘British jobs for British workers’ placards chilled me to the bone.
My Beautiful Laundrette is a play for today, but this hardworking production lacks the authenticity that would better serve the power of Kureishi’s writing.
images: Ellie Kurttz