My Beautiful Laundrette

Based on the screenplay by Hanif Kureishi
Snap Theatre
Aberystwyth Arts Centre

If you haven’t heard Snap! Theatre Company’s dramatization of Hanif Kureishi’s screenplay My Beautiful Laundrette at the Aberystwyth Arts Centre tonight, then you may have other chances as the production continues its National Tour. I say ‘hear’ rather than ‘see’ because the score is amazing. It is not just background music: its waves of quick, bright notes and percussion runs through the veins of the play. The South Asian-inspired, vaguely trance-influenced instrumental pieces are not background music: they animate the actors, even when engaged in moving flats during scene changes, and remind us why the people in the house are called the audience.

Unfortunately, director Andy Graham’s use of music video conventions - including tableaux, dances in formation, and projected video footage of bright-coloured shapes spinning against complicated backgrounds - doesn’t always work very well. Some of the motion pictures - particularly ones that don’t depict people or recognisable objects - fight with the actors and usually win. Scenes end up looking not only like music videos, but like ads and presentations by PowerPoint addicts. This is regrettable, because the story is so riveting and well-told that there is really no need to add bells and whistles.

In My Beautiful Laundrette, Omar (Harvinder S. Bhere) a young British man whose parents emigrated from Pakistan before he was born, revitalises a dilapidated laundry given to him by his businessman uncle, played by Georgie Hayes. Omar’s business partner in this scheme is Johnny (Rowan Talbot) a white boy whom Omar has known since he was five. Johnny’s seduction by a scary, embittered BNP/skinhead crowd had caused the friends to drift apart, but the challenge of managing the laundry reunites them, as partners in love as well as business.

Outside the laundry, the world is dangerous for both and soiled with financial corruption, racism, and despair. Johnny is beckoned by the skinheads (or maybe just projections of them in his own consciousness), who are powerfully represented by a larger-than-life, appropriately fragmented and monochrone face projected on the upstage flats, Omar’s uncle’s shady, vicious business associate, Salim (Arif Javid) splutters with anti-white/English racist rage that mirrors neo-Nazi or National Front rhetoric, and Omar’s cousin, Tanya (Catherine Mobley) tries to assert women’s rights to public life, opportunities, and respect. Can love overcome all this?

Some of the acting is unfortunately very stiff, particularly in the first act. By the second act, with the plot rushing full speed ahead, the actors had loosened up a bit. However, movements which were probably intended to look stylised, like moments caught in a burst of strobe light on the floor of a club, come across as jerky and over-choreographed. Also, the dance is not very creative and some of the actors were occasionally out of sync with each other. Lastly, all the female characters are seriously under-developed. Tanya is a one-dimensional champion of women’s rights: an agitprop device rather than a realistic representation of a human being. Her mother, whose silence and invisibility are a major issue within the play, is never seen onstage. Finally, Omar’s uncle’s mistress, Rachel (Kii Kendrick) fulfills all the predictable stereotypes of the Other Woman, right down to wearing the requisite dark red dress and matching lipstick and heels.

However, two monologues by Omar’s father, played with controlled passion by Seva Dhalivaal, stand out as rousing, beautiful prose poems. “Papa” had been a progressive journalist in Pakistan but his career, in Britain, was destroyed by alienation, unemployment, and alcohol. He fiercely retains his idealism, believing that “bonds” of friendship and love can conquer all. Can they? Papa’s orations show the conflict of a writer who wants to see his son build a less heartless future, but refuses to speak with him about his own past in Pakistan. He rhapsodises about “bonds” but has also wilfully broken them. I wanted to read what he said, or hear the words again. Another great moment involved the mesmerising sharing of a bowl of water by the lovers. Droplets rained through the empty space between their bodies, accompanied by clear, light beats of music.

My Beautiful Laundrette is not a replica of Romeo and Juliet or West Side Story. When the lights came up at the interval, I didn’t know what would happen to our uncertain heroes and their bold but fragile love. Furthermore, the story is open-ended. Several subplots are not resolved, but that seems realistic, appropriate. This play is about Britain now and we can make it end the way we want, with the triumph of love over hatred or the other way around. When three card-carrying members of the BNP have won local council seats in Burnley, and in France Jean Marie le Pen gets his name on the ballot, it does not seem unrealistic that a play like this would end not with a full stop but with a question mark. It is up to us to respond to that question.

This review is reproduced by kind permission of the Theatre in Wales website.

Reviewer: Rebecca Nesvet