The Buddha of Suburbia

Emma Rice and Hanif Kureishi
Royal Shakespeare Company
Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

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The company Credit: Steve Tanner
Party time Credit: Steve Tanner
Raj Bajaj (Changez) Credit: Steve Tanner
Ankur Bahl (Haroon), Bettrys Jones (Margaret) and Dee Ahluwalia (Karim in earlier show) Credit: Steve Tanner
Simon Rivers (Anwar) Credit: Steve Tanner
Dee Ahluwalia (Karim in earlier show) and company Credit: Steve Tanner

It is election day, May 3, 1979, following the strikes that marked the winter of discontent, as the narrator Karim Anwar informs us, adding that he is "an Englishman born and bred. Almost."

‘Almost’ because of his mixed race parentage, ‘almost’ because of the appalling racial abuse he has suffered as a child, ‘almost’ because he doesn’t quite know who he is.

Emma Rice’s stage adaptation of Hanif Kureishi’s novel is not so much a drama as a moving picture gallery of people caught between two great histories in a search to find themselves. It may be money or mysticism (Karim’s father Haroon, the Buddha of the title), political activism or sex.

And particularly sex, lots of it of the fire-cracker sort with explosions for every orgasm, lots of genital references, and lots of bananas. I’m sorry to say I feel a harrumph coming on.

Karim, however, finds his escape leads to the stage, and in some ways the piece is a celebration of theatre. Deven Modha, cover for Dee Ahluwalia after he injured himself on set, plays it rather cool in the role, symbolically able to take on a new persona as an actor. I loved Ewan Wardrop’s take on his arrogant, vain, shallow, wife-swapping director who first cajoles Karim into taking on a brown-face Mowgli, but is later sent away with his own tail between his legs when his acting star finds confidence in his own convictions.

The show is raunchy and riotous, but rather long and not as wryly funny as the novel.

The humour here lies not so much in the dialogue or stage direction as in the richness of characters, sympathetically portrayed with obvious affection by a strong ensemble, among them Raj Bajaj as the newcomer to England expecting to fit in by wearing a Holmsean deerstalker, Ankur Bahl as the charismatic, gymnastic guru Haroon, Lucy Thackeray as his Technicolored gypsy of a lover and Simon Rivers as the "aristocratic, useless" Anwar, killed by an unfortunate blow on the head by a sex aid. I bet that was low on expectation when he came from Bombay.

If the play has a message, it is about the primacy of love above all other preoccupations and about finding one’s own path. For all Karim’s troubles, my sympathies rested mainly with the admirable Rina Fatania’s Aunt Jeeta, finding happiness in widowhood from running her own shop, and the splendid Bettrys Jones, departing heavy-footed as Haroon’s abandoned wife.

One can excuse the play’s occasional preachiness as Karim recites his own humiliations by racists, given that his is a voice needing to be heard. It is not always subtly told, but the play ends sardonically with Margaret Thatcher’s election victory speech: "Where there is discord, may we bring harmony." Well, that went well, didn't it?

Reviewer: Colin Davison

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