Tuesday 15th October 2019 at Leeds Playhouse.
Hanif Kureishi’s 1985 screenplay lands on stage as a story of youth, prejudice and gritty perseverance which feels as if it were written this year…an impression only dashed by the political figures, some Pet Shop Boy tunes and some very 80s fashion. Aside from those time markers, this could be Trump’s America or Britain’s Brexit tensions splayed out before us and the inclusion of an inter-racial gay relationship against that turbulent backdrop is pretty intriguing to watch as it takes shape.
So it’s 80s London and the local skinheads are not, I repeat not, happy about their increasingly multicultural stomping ground. Grace Smart’s costume designs land us snugly back in the 80s and her set designs offer a general tone of pre Insta-filter run down reality (before the appearance of that ‘beautiful’ renovation of course). While the dangerous down and outs prowl the streets looking for victims for their frustrations, a family business is gaining a new member and the family behind the shop fronts begins to shift on its tectonic plates. The question is, what happens when the disillusioned Asian up and comer bumps into school pal-turned-disillusioned-far-right-skinhead?
My Beautiful Laundrette is fit to burst with big characters. While our lead Omar (Omar Malik) is an understated, gentle presence, his family is anything but. Gordon Warnecke plays Omar’s Papa and the comic Zaki with an entertaining blend of brutal sarcasm, depressive fug and quick wit. Omar’s Uncle Nasser (Kammy Darweish) is all bluster, boasting and underhanded criminality beneath the surface. He too has a comic layer, but he’s very much the pigeon chested ruler of all we survey…in all it’s grime.
Hareet Deol gives an incredibly forceful performance as Salim, a young man painfully familiar with the racist realities pervading his daily life and consequently a young man with razor sharp edges and an almost non-existent fuse. Balvinder Sopal is fantastic, transforming from tormented wife living within the confines of a traditional marriage to Moose, one of the lairy devil may care Nazi sympathisers looking for skulls to crack. Likewise, Cathy Tyson shifts beautifully between the bouncingly optimistic mistress Rachel and the comically intense Cherry. Paddy Daly flexes the same multi-roling muscles as the risible Dick O’donnell and the rather unhinged skinhead Genghis.
The youngsters are at the heart of this tale so it stands to reason that those to impress most take those youthful roles. Malik delivers Omar’s broodiness just as well as the glimpses of fun, though it would be nice to see a little more of the latter. The chemistry between Malik and Jonny Fines (playing Johnny) is one of the most winning elements of this production. Their connection isn’t over-sold, it’s not treated as a live grenade despite the backdrop and it’s not treated as some kind of idealistic secret romance. In fact, the ambiguity of the connection makes the pairing fascinating to watch and both Fines and Malik deliver the rather unique dynamic with sincerity edged with playfulness.
Fines gives one of the most compelling performances in this production as the tormented and torn Jonny. He’s bright but without options and he’s disillusioned and indoctrinated by his own disappointment-fuelled bigotry. Yet he’s oddly charming and Fines embellishes the character with some fantastic comedy and sharp comic timing. Nicole Jebeli, playing Tania, brings a much needed thoroughly fiery performance to the stage. Tania represents the jarring of modern western culture and traditional Pakistani culture – she’s not in the least interested in following in her mother’s wedded footsteps and she’s entirely unimpressed with her father’s antics. Tania’s is an intensely indignant angst and Jebeli succeeds in delivering the drama without shifting gear into far less meaningful melodrama.
Nikolai Foster directs and brings the extremes out of each character within the piece while juggling the various narrative strands smoothly and generally speaking, with a good pace. However, despite the big sell on the classic and brand new Pet Shop Boys music, the presence of Tennant and Lowe’s work is fleeting and functions only as pacy transition masking. It subsequently feels a little mis-sold at best and underwhelming at worst. I’d have liked to have seen more incorporation of the lively music promised – particularly in the second act when the production begins to flag thanks to an over-generous running time.
Hanif Kureishi’s story carries an interesting mix of comedy-drama, socio-political commentary and back seat romance. A great cast bring a vibrant array of characters to life and keep us all nicely entertained with their various antics and conflicts – more compelling than all of that though is the way this 80s narrative and all its component parts feels so depressingly familiar in subject matter. For all its focus on family and relationships, it’s actually a rather damning indictment of how little times are changing, except perhaps for the fact that the LGBTQ+ characters are better off here than in most 80s narratives – or contemporary narratives for that matter. It’s a damn good job there’s plenty of comedy thrown in!
My Beautiful Laundrette is a Leeds Playhouse, Belgrade Theatre Coventry and Curve and Everyman Theatre Cheltenham co-production. It plays Leeds Playhouse until October 26th and you can find tickets here.