I remember vividly Stephen Frear's film of Hanif Kureishi's MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE. It was a lovely, subtle picture of class and race in Thatcher-era London with a complex gay romance thrown in. There's no good reason to turn this fine film into a play and Roger Parsely and Andy Graham's adaptation for the tiny stage of the Above the Stag Theatre has plusses and minuses.
If you don't remember, the central character of MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE is a 17 year old mixed-race boy, Omar. Omar's father is a Pakistani-born intellectual. In his home country, he was a distinguished journalist and friend of the president. In London he is an unemployed, disillusioned drunk. His English wife couldn't stand the negativity anymore and committed suicide. Omar's father wants his son to be like him -- a well educated intellectual, but he isn't much of a role model. Instead, Omar wants to be like his uncle and cousins -- well-off through the profits from legitimate and not-so-legitimate businesses. His uncle starts him washing cars in his garage but within a few days gives him a failing laundrette to run. His cousin has him working part-time as a courier in his drug business. Like his uncle and cousin, Omar is fiercely ambitious and sees himself as superior to the lazy working-class whites who hate the Pakistanis. One of those lazy white racists is Johnny, Omar's childhood friend who briefly joined the racist, fascist National Front. Johnny is homeless and unemployed until Omar hires him to help with his laundrette. Omar and Johnny becomes lovers, but their relationsip is a fraught one because, however much they are attracted to one another, racial resentments aren't far below the surface. There are other characters: the uncle's white mistress and his daughter, Tania, who isn't allowed to be part of the family enterprises because she is female. The family hopes Omar will marry Tania, but she knows where Omar's affections lie. She even tries unsuccessfully to steal Johnny.
The dramatization has only the six main characters. Gone are the other women in the film: Uncle Nassir's wife who places a successful curse on his mistress and cousin Nassir's chic wife. We also lose Johnny's fascist friends who try to destroy his and Omar's business.There are some clunky expository passages and soliloquies. The racial attitudes of the Pakistani's are a bit clearer than in the screenplay, but some of the ironies are lost. In the film, it is clear that Uncle Nassir knows about the romance of Omar and Johnny and can accept it. Johnny in the play is subjected to so much virulent racism and homophobia from cousin Salim that I thought he must be a masochist to stay with Omar and his family. Salim is a bit too nastily racist and homophobic in this version.
Nonetheless, this version of MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE is cleverly staged (Tim McArthur) and well acted. I believed James Wallwork's Johnny more than Daniel Day-Lewis's in the film. Wallwork is a burly guy. You believe he was once a thug and that Nassir would hire him to be a menacing presence on one of his properties. Day Lewis was too refined and intelligent: he seemed to be a sophisticate posing as a homeless working class kid. What I didn't believe is that cousin Salim could beat up Johnny so easily. Wallwork looks like he could easily win that fight -- or are we to believe Johnny chooses not to fight back? Yannick Fernandes captures Omar's drive and his anger. The sexual chemistry between Wallwork and Fernandes is sporadic, too often like two straight actors not totally comfortable with the snogging. The rest of the cast was fine.
MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE has been another hit for the Above the Stag Theatre. I was interested to see that this theatre over a gay pub that basically does gay-oriented plays attracts straight as well as gay audience members. I had a feeling many who were there didn't know the film and were enjoying discovering these fascinating characters for the first time.
MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE. Above the Stage Theatre. April 12, 2011