Melissa Blease reviews My Beautiful Launderette at Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham, on until 12 October
Britain, 1985: Unemployment figures were set to hit an all-time high. The Trade Unions were in serious decline. Oliver Letwin – a key member of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s policy unit – wrote a memo to his boss urging her to dismiss proposals to invest in a scheme designed to encourage black entrepreneurs, suggesting such an initiative would only lead to them spending the money on “discos and drugs”.
Skinheads – fuelled by the British media’s toxic anti-immigrant and anti-Pakistani rhetoric – claimed that their penchant for ‘Paki-bashing’ was motivated by national pride. Riots erupted in several cities across the UK, Ernie Wise made the UK’s first commercial mobile phone call, The Pet Shop Boys’ Opportunities reached number 11 in the UK charts… and Hanif Kureishi wrote the screenplay for Stephen Frears’ British comedy-drama My Beautiful Launderette: a tiny, low-budget film that garnered such critical acclaim at the Edinburgh Film Festival that it was distributed to cinemas and eventually became an international success.
Scroll forward some 34 years and My Beautiful Launderette is open for business again courtesy of a brand new stage production adapted by Kureishi, directed by Nikolai Foster and featuring Gordon Warnecke (who originally starred as Omar in the movie) as Omar’s dad. Cathy (Mona Lisa; Band of Gold) Tyson deftly juggles two roles, while snippets, intros, jingles and jangles from The Pet Shop Boys add brawn to the money shots.
Set in London, the storyline focuses on young Pakistani man Omar’s complex family, his reunion and eventual rekindled romance with old school friend Johnny, and their refurbishment of Omar’s uncle’s rundown launderette. Cultural, generational and gender conflict; racism; class struggles; illicit affairs; drug running; violence – it’s all in the mixed wash of social realism linen set to be aired in public, confronting issues as pertinent and invasive today as they were 30+ years ago.
There’s plenty of era-specific nostalgia for those of a certain vintage to take great delight in here: Omar’s drug dealing cousin Salim rocks his baby pink George Michael-style suit; his feisty cousin Tania (a solid performance from Nicole Jebeli) rages against the passivity of her mother’s generation in failing to rebel against a culture in which marriages are seen as business mergers while dressed as the fourth member of Bananarama; Grace Smart’s smart sets (mobile scaffolding podiums, flashing neon tubes, graffiti-sprayed washing machines) offer a 1980s nightclub vibe.
At times, however, the rich contextual humanity of the narrative and the bold sense of ambition that underpins the whole production seems to slightly overwhelm the cast.
Although both Omar Malik and Jonny Fines (Omar and Johnny respectively) bring pace and personality to their individual roles, they fail to create the kind of spark that should lead us believe that these star-crossed lovers would reach out to each other across such a disparate, difficult cultural divide – any passion, it seems, has been bleached out of the bedsheets before they even consider hitting the sack.
And while the largely multitasking ensemble cast around them do a largely admirable job of switching roles at a cracking pace, the conversions occasionally lead to confusion during key scenes: Balvinder Sopal has us totally on-side as Omar’s Uncle Nasser’s acquiescent, deferential wife Bilquis, but fails to pack the necessary punch as white, male skinhead Moose, while Cathy Tyson gives all her audacious energy to Rachel, putting her secondary role as Salim’s wife Cherry in the shadows.
Such minor wrinkles, though, are likely to be ironed out as the production develops confidence; overall, the reopening of the doors to My Beautiful Launderette is a beautiful thing to celebrate.
Main image: Ellie Kurttz