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The Black Album

Hanif Kureishi
RNT Cottesloe
(2009)

It is easy to forget that long before he became a novelist and screenwriter, Hanif Kureishi cut his spurs in the theatre. However, The Black Album (named after the Prince record) started out as a novel follow-up to The Buddha of Suburbia and it shows.

The book took on issues of vital importance in any era but was particularly relevant in the cauldron of change taking place across the world in 1989.

Its central figure, Jonathan Bonnici's handsome Shahid, is a true symbol. He is from Pakistani stock but lives in Sevenoaks trying to assimilate the wishes of his secular father, recently deceased as the play opens, and a traditional mother, who has all of the traits of the comic Jewish mother of folklore, except the religion.

Shahid sets out to find himself at College in East London and soon discovers a personal dichotomy, as he is courted by the "Brothers", his fundamentalist co-religionists, and his lecturer, the right-on Deedee Osgood, who embraces modern Western freedom in thought and voluptuous body.

For most of the play, the debate between two cultures rages until it finds its battleground over what the Muslims refer to as "the Book" - not the Koran but Salman Rushdie's inflammatory novel, The Satanic Verses.

The extremes are represented by Tanya Franks on one side as the belligerent but highly educated Deedee and Riaz, played by Alexander Andreou. He is a murderous religious bigot in the making, with his indefatigable self belief and fatuous pronouncements eventually mirrored in the Iranian fatwa against Salman Rushdie and visualised in a terrifying book burning.

On the sidelines are Shahid's family, best represented by his hedonistic brother Chili (Robert Mountford) who prefers Pal Smith to Allah, and Zulma-Auntie, a cultured, dismissive wannabe Benazir Bhutto. Their counterpart on the fundamentalist side is Deedee's increasingly estranged husband, Andrew, a middle class Communist looking for a cause after the fall of the Berlin Wall and with it a lifetime of hope.

The debate rages with real heat and there is comedy in seeing the cultural problems besetting a budding writer trying to choose the right path, while being seduced by opposing forces. The Black Album is strong on issues but, despite the efforts of Hanif Kureishi who has adapted his own novel, and Tara Arts' Jatinder Verma who directs, the action has the feel of a cartoon with few of the characters fully realised.

There are some great comic moments: for example, the worship of an aubergine that transmits a Koranic message and the throwaway line from a self-important politician in the midst of the fatwa row, "I could murder an Indian."

On the acting front, where most of the supporting players struggle to rise above cliché, Shereen Martineau excels in three contrasting character parts as Mother, Auntie and an Irish-accented Muslim in a Burka, Tahira, who is torn between her faith and her feminine instincts.

The obvious question that one is always tempted to ask when a work is translated for a different medium is what extra dimension does the new version offer?

By the end of just under 2½ hours, this critic has put The Black Album on a (re)-reading list. However, while the stage version is fun and often challenging in its subject matter, it is overly-condensed and therefore lacks the intellectual depth of debate that only the novel form can provide.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher