My Beautiful Laundrette

Hanif Kureishi
Theatre Nation Partnerships, produced by Curve
The Lowry

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Lucca Chadwick-Patel (Omar) and Sam Mitchell (Johnny)
Gordon Warnecke (Papa) and Lucca Chadwick-Patel (Omar) Credit: Ellie Kurttz
Hareet Deal as Salim
Sharan Phull (Tania) and Emma Bown (Rachel)
Emma Bown (Rachel and Moose) and Kammy Darweish (Nasser) Credit: Ellie Kurttz
Emma Bown (Moose), Sam Mitchell (Johnny) and Paddy Daly (Genghis)
Gordon Warnecke (Papa) and Sam Mitchell (Johnny)
Hareet Deal as Salim and Lucca Chadwick-Patel (Omar)
Sam Mitchell (Johnny) and Lucca Chadwick-Patel (Omar)

Although writer Hanif Kureishi has said he doesn't know whether he will be able to every hold a pen again after his accident a little over a year ago, he has two theatrical versions of his earlier works currently active: Emma Rice is adapting with him his novel The Buddha of Suburbia for the RSC, and this adaptation of the screenplay of the 1985 Stephen Frears film My Beautiful Laundrette is touring.

The latter was originally directed by Nikolai Foster for Curve in 2019—now directed by Nicole Behan with half of the current cast repeating their earlier roles—but the one-sheet programme says it "was developed in 2023 with the support of the National Theatre's Generate programme"; this appears to have resulted in the loss of some of the female characters, who join other elements of the story that are delivered through dialogue rather than being shown on stage.

The story centres on young, Pakistani-British Omar (Lucca Chadwick-Patel), who lives with his father, known only as Papa (Gordon Warnecke, who played Omar in the 1985 film), and white Johnny (Sam Mitchell), who were friends at school until Papa saw Johnny on a National Front march. Papa thinks Omar is wasting his life away, so tells his brother Nasser (Kammy Darweish), a prominent local businessman, to give him a job.

Omar begins by washing cars, but he quickly persuades his uncle to put him in charge of his failing laundrette. He brings in Johnny to help do up and run the place, with the help of money from drugs that Omar steals from Salim (Hareet Deol), but Johnny's skinhead friends, thuggish Genghis (Paddy Daly) and his compliant sidekick Moose (Emma Bown) aren't happy that their mate is working for someone not of their 'tribe'—even though Genghis struggles to define what this actually means when challenged by Johnny.

Omar and Johnny become increasingly close throughout the play, with the first act ending in a passionate kiss, but this isn't a story of growing awareness of sexuality, like Jonathan Harvey's Beautiful Thing; it is clear from the start the nature of their attraction and there is a suggestion that their relationship was sexual even at school.

But this is also the story of two brothers: Papa is a committed, lifelong socialist, while Nasser is a Thatcherite capitalist, but they come from a culture where family matters above all else. But this is still a patriarchal culture, and Nasser insists on choosing a husband for his daughter, Tania (Sharan Phull), while he cheats on his own wife with Rachel (Bown again), whom he seems to genuinely love, resulting in him perhaps losing them both.

There is a lot to like in this production, but it still feels more cinematic than theatrical in the sense that there are a lot of short scenes flitting between locations, resulting in a lot of breaks for scene changes, as slick as they are in Grace Smart's design, which sets off the grey set with the colourful neon signs as the laundrette starts to come to life and has trussing and lighting bars over the stage at quirky angles.

While cutting some of the characters has no doubt helped, some of those that remain still feel like sketches that the actors don't get the chance to fully colour in. However it's nice that the ending, with Omar and Johnny playfully splashing one another with water, is realistically ambiguous rather than idealistic, as it isn't clear whether they will have continued success either in love or in business.

With music from Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe of the Pet Shop Boys, some from the period and some new, and an accurate portrayal of the violent political and cultural clashes of the time, this is an interesting and accurate snapshot of the mid-'80s with a good story to tell, even if it does so unevenly.

Reviewer: David Chadderton

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