Before writing the screenplay for his landmark film – which carefully explored the complex identities of British Asians, frankly depicted an interracial gay relationship, and made the names of Daniel Day-Lewis and Stephen Frears – Hanif Kureishi was already an award-winning playwright.
But his own adaptation of the film that made him famous lands awkwardly on stage. Nikolai Foster’s production doesn’t quite know whether to take its source material straight, or stylise it with neon splashes and Pet Shop Boys music. It’s partly heightened, partly expanded but, on the whole, a little diminished.
Omar Malik plays Omar, a young Pakistani whose Thatcherite uncle tasks him with doing up a laundrette. He meets old school friend Johnny (Jonny Fines), a violent fascist who wants to reform. They start a relationship, while getting sucked into the various complications of Omar’s family: drug running, affairs, alcoholism.
These two are brilliant together: Malik slightly slow, thoughtful, exuding innocence (at least at the start), in contrast to Fines who speaks at a million miles an hour, and seems tightly wound and ready to flip at any second.
Alongside them is Kammy Darweish’s Uncle Nasser, whose charisma and ebullience provide a centre of gravity for his scenes. But there are also some seriously underpowered performances that either use shouting as their primary mode, or drain the stage of all vitality.
A cast of nine means there’s doubling, achieved in an interesting way. Balvinder Sopal not only plays Nasser’s wife – a regressive domestic relationship in which she cooks and turns a blind eye to his affair – but also the white, male fascist Moose.
At its best, that colour-blindness creates a layer of today over the show’s own era. It shows how far we’ve come in representation on stage when an Asian woman can play a male skinhead. But there are questions to be asked about the moment when cousin Salim beats Moose up – it seems to be unnecessarily adding a scene of violence towards a woman, and undermines its own purpose.
The set by Grace Smart consists of half-built scaffolds and battered old washing machines, enlivened by spritzes of neon. It looks good, but it’s a messy affair, with too many big structures being pushed around, and props getting in the way. It promises something stylised that the script rejects.
It’s a frustrating translation to the stage. While it keeps the violence and the racist language, it prudishly reduces the gay sex to a kiss. And Foster’s production fails to find the comedy. There’s violence, politics, racism, sexism in Kureishi’s script, but pretty much every other line is a gag. You wouldn’t know it here. The humour is swallowed by the insistence on finding an overall aesthetic rather than focusing on the careful detail of the script.
Although enjoyable, it feels like a load of decent elements – a fun set, Pet Shop Boys music, a decent script – that don’t quite mesh.