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My Beautiful Laundrette

Review by Charlotte Beaver

A charming show for the holiday season!

Adapted by Hanif Kureishi for the stage from his original screenplay, My Beautiful Laundrette is a classic piece exploring racism, social class, sexuality, generational conflict, immigration, feminism and just about everything else to do with being human. Set firmly in the vivid turbulence of 1980s Britain, many of the issues confronted are still faced by today’s society – especially young people. Nikolai Foster’s 2019 Curve production has been rebooted by director Nicole Behan. It is off on tour with support by The National Theatre.

The first half of the show has a very explosive and aggressive opening, with some swift scene changes and rather complex relationships explained very quickly. We meet Omar, who lives with his alcoholic Papa who we’re told was a ‘big deal’ back in Pakistan. Papa desperately wants Omar to go to college to better himself but sends him to work with his Uncle Nasser at his car dealership. Nasser manages to see the potential in Omar and promotes him quickly through the ranks to executive. Omar seeks the opportunity to prove himself with multiple challenges from the situation he finds himself in, with Nasser’s protégé Salim adding fuel to the fire. Amongst all of this, Omar is expected to marry his Cousin Tania, protect his Uncle’s reputation and build a successful laundrette business. He falls in love with the local far right-wing thug Johnny - who used to bully him at school. It’s basically a year’s worth of dramatic soap opera plots crammed into a 2-hour stage production!

The pace of some of these developments made it difficult to empathise with the characters, in particular Johnny and Omar fall for each other very quickly and easily, despite everything being against them – including their own biases against each other. The second half of the show attempts to bring all the conflicts to a head, with the most successful stage fight sequence being the final one between Salim and Johnny’s old mates, in which Johnny has to intervene by reverting to type and being the thug he was trying disassociate himself from. Other sequences were less successful and broke the illusion slightly.

Many of the characters in the show struggle with finding where they belong and being accepted – and I found some aspects of the production to have the same struggle. The set features bespoke (and probably very expensive) neon lighting to help transform the newly-renovated laundrette, but the trashing of the laundrette was a few bits of spray-painted paper tossed around the floor. A scaffold pole truck tower dominates the space, providing flexibility and a memorable moment with an unsettling Paddy Daly (Ghenghis) surveying his patch and looking down on all the people that are also looking down on him. Daly performed a haunting rendition of “There’ll Always Be An England” from his squatters borrowed castle -  but the structure isn’t easily accessed by the older cast members.

In particular, Omar pulls a sink away from the wall to centre stage in order to wash Johnny following the main fight – who is still in an immaculate white vest, not a hair out of place, while he lays in Omar’s arms like Cosette upon the barricades in Les Mis. Swiftly followed by bubbles, which rather undermined what the struggles we were trying to take very seriously. I felt there was a juxtaposition between the styles of the actors with Eastenders dramatic gritty realism from some, and light, flippant comedic ‘Goodness Gracious Me’ styling from others, which made a meaningful connection with the stories difficult.

This is a common A-Level set text and some elements of the production felt like a really strong theatre studies exam piece. I say this in the same breath that Nicole Behan is an early-career director and she has made bold and exciting choices. The staging of the club scene was very successful considering it is such a small cast and a very imposing set, with echoes of the Berlin Wall. I hope to see more of her work. We must support new directors in genuine ways and it isn’t always clear to audiences what comes from director or cast member.

With this in mind, there were some comfortingly assured performances from Emma Bown (as Rachel), Hareet Deol (Salim) and Paddy Daly (as Ghenghis). These characters felt whole, with depth that had been explored by the actor outside of the dialogue presented to them and could have had their own spin-off series. Sam Mitchell as Johnny showed great promise. As a recent RADA graduate, I feel confident we can expect more from him.

This is a piece that should be seen by the population of Britain. Whether this production and the performances squeezed all of the potential out of the text is up for discussion but as always, I encourage readers to see more theatre and make up their own minds. I was left with the feeling that Britain has both changed significantly and also not at all...and perhaps we can all be villains at some point of every story. Whether this is what the production intends, I have no idea – but it’s reassuring that there is still theatre being made which leaves the audience with so much to think about. And this version of My Beautiful Laundrette certainly does that.

Elsewhere in Thurmaston

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