On the eve of what might really be Brexit this time, any show that examines what it means to be British is bound to feel relevant. An opportune moment then, for Hanif Kureishi’s adaptation of My Beautiful Laundrette to come to the newly redeveloped Leeds Playhouse.
Stage versions of films can be tricky to get right. Their success tends to rest on how well they can bring a renewed perspective and entice new audiences. The original film caused controversy yet delighted the critics, but is Kureishi’s portrayal of British Asian culture as relevant now as it was in 1985? And will programming like this help the Playhouse bring a fresh crowd through its shiny new doors?
My Beautiful Laundrette is part coming-of-age gay love story, and part social realist snapshot of London in Thatcher’s Britain. At the centre of the story is our protagonist Omar, a young British Pakistani charged with turning around his uncle’s launderette business. He has plenty on his plate; caring for an alcoholic, socialist father, an uncle determined to marry him to his wayward daughter and dealing with his violent, cocaine-addict cousin.
Omar’s life takes an unexpected turn when he is reunited with high school friend Johnny. As a member of a skinhead gang, when Johnny meets Omar he also has to make up his mind about where he belongs and deal with some seriously agitated friends along the way. The pair’s romance blossoms against a backdrop of generational conflict, economic struggle and torn loyalties.
It’s a lot funnier than it sounds. The comic moments, of which there are many, are quite rightly given their chance to shine in director Nikolai Foster’s co-production, a collaboration with Leeds Playhouse, Belgrade Theatre Coventry, Curve and Everyman Theatre Cheltenham. The piece takes a while to warm up – there is a certain amount of scene-setting which could be slicker – but once we enter into the world of the characters the cast fall into their stride with relative ease and a great deal of passion.
Omar Malik and Jonny Fines certainly look the part as the central characters. Their performances are measured, with just the right amount of playfulness to keep us going through the darker scenes. In fact, the quieter, tender moments between them are some of the most impactful. Special mention must be made of Gordon Warnecke, who played Omar in the original film. In this production he takes on the role of Omar’s father. One of the more complex characters, Warnecke delivers his lines with subtlety and warmth and has us pondering how such a political idealist could lose his way so dramatically.
It’s an impressive, flexible set design and the obvious semiotics work as they should – garish neon lights illuminate the nazi graffiti, and battered washing machines are set in concrete. The throbbing Pet Shop Boys’ soundtrack is immediately nostalgic of the era without being too camp. The transition of this piece from film to stage does mean that we sometimes have to work hard to find the missing pieces. In an effort to get all the action in, there are moments in which it’s not clear where one scene has ended and another one begins, but the ambiguity just about works, and there’s enough context to fill in the blanks.
Kureishi’s script maintains its poeticism. A scene between Omar’s aunt (Salvinder Sopal) and her daughter Tania (Nicole Jebeli) in which she exclaims, “you’re ruining my entire life with your originality” is both funny and enduring. And when Jonny references Omar’s mother’s suicide with the line “I heard, all the trains stopped,” it’s heartbreaking and vivid. It is this kind of wording that stays with you long after the final curtain, or in this case, after the laundrette’s bubbles have dropped.
A quick glance around the auditorium signaled that while popular, the show attracted the usual demographic. This is a shame, given that the themes of identity, belonging and the failure of political idealism struck me as being as relevant, if not more so, to younger folks today as they were in the eighties. But credit to the cast and team for a bold beginning to the Playhouse’s new season, at a time when we absolutely need to keep questioning the concept of Britishness. Long may this stuff continue.
My Beautiful Launderette is on at Leeds Playhouse until the 26 October, then touring. Find dates and tickets here.