Gaysian play in the Midlands
Posted on 30 Aug 2019

Hanif Kureishi’s original movie version of My Beautiful Laundrette was released in 1985 and focused on an interracial love story between a young Pakistani man and his old school friend, a white working-class guy who’d lost his way. A clever, funny and powerful reflection of life in Thatcher’s Britain, the film has been named the 50th greatest British movie of the 20th century by the British Film Institute. With so much going for it, it’s no wonder Leicester Curve’s Artistic Director, Nikolai Foster, wanted to create a brand new stage version...  

Nikolai spoke to Zone ahead of the show’s premiere at the venue late this month... 

Why was My Beautiful Laundrette such a groundbreaking gay story, Nikolai?
It’s an extraordinary piece of writing that follows two families: a Pakistani family and a makeshift white British working-class one. The Pakistani family are very traditional, with the patriarch being an immigrant who’s built up businesses across South London and whose wife conforms to the stereotype of a subservient housewife. They essentially have a loveless marriage. Their son, Omar, is cheeky, witty and subversive. He’s a curious character who’s really quiet when we meet him at the start of the play, but who gains his confidence when he’s charged with looking after and transforming one of his uncle’s laundrettes into a viable business. The second family is this white working-class group who aren’t a biological family. The head of their group is Johnny, who was played by Daniel Day Lewis in the original film. 

Their relationship was quite unique...
Yes. Omar and Johnny were best mates at school. They didn’t see race, colour, sexuality or politics - they were just really good friends regardless. As they got into their teenage years, Johnny started running with a load of skinheads, racists and BNP members. Not because, I think, he’s a hateful person, but more through a lack of intelligence. He was sucked into a movement that his heart wasn’t really in. The play begins when these two families collide and Johnny and Omar rekindle the relationship that started when they were boys. 

My Beautiful Laundrette is really a story about these two men falling in love, and the clash, convergence and investigation of the two cultures they represent: the white working-class English voice, frustrated at being left behind as the world changes around them, and the Pakistani immigrant community who are making Thatcher’s Britain work for them by having successful, thriving businesses. Omar and Johnny bridge the gap between these two communities and have this really unique relationship.

What was going on in the 1980s that meant this film made such an impact?
Thatcher was busy drumming up her plans for Section 28, which was to make it illegal to ‘promote sexuality in schools’. So they couldn’t even talk about it. We were in the middle of the Aids crisis - a really terrifying time for the LGBTQ+ community. Hanif Kureishi’s screenplay never once mentioned the words ‘gay’, ‘queer’ or ‘homosexual’. He just told a love story that happened to be between two men, but the fact it’s two men is never commented on by the writer. It’s just accepted that love is a basic human right and that it’s completely natural for two men to fall in love and have this incredible relationship. 

The film in itself was extraordinary for its time in terms of the LGBTQ+ community. It would’ve been the same with two white British boys, but the fact that it’s between a Pakistani Muslim and a white working-class ex-BNP member made it even more poignant. It’s a prayer for reconciliation, with Johnny’s character learning and transforming from doing and saying terrible, racist things into a character that we accept. He gives hope that everyone has the capacity for change and the ability to rectify their mistakes. 

The interracial and inter-faith aspect of Omar and Johnny’s relationship is particularly significant, then?
It doesn’t take a lot of research to know that the middle of the ’80s was a time of great sociopolitical turmoil, with the BNP marching up and down the country and hate crimes being commonplace. I think in many ways it was the interracial element of the central gay relationship that made this film so revolutionary. There’s so much going on even now, in 2019, in relation to homosexuality and different faith communities. 
In the case of this play, Omar comes from a Muslim family. I think a lot of this is about reconciling people’s faith and religious beliefs with the basic human rights of other groups. My Beautiful Laundrette was so subtle in its message, but that’s what really made it a battle-cry for everyone who was gay or from another minority or ethnic group that felt ostracised. It feels just as relevant today as when Hanif wrote it.

As a gay man yourself, how do you feel about the relationship between the LGBTQ+ community and the wider population in 2019?
I feel horrified by the recent increase in homophobic violence and the reaction to gay relationships being a part of school teaching. I wouldn’t say I feel scared because I feel that theatre and the arts has an ever-increasing role in making sense of these things, and I get comfort from being at the heart of that. I feel the theatre is a safe space for response to the increase in hate crimes and these incidents at Birmingham schools. We can tell complex, nuanced stories that look at the debate from both sides, hopefully meeting somewhere in the middle.  

You have a role to play within theatre, but what are your concerns?
What I find so distressing at the moment, whether it be to do with homophobia, nationalism or racism, is that people just seem so polarised. It’s black or white - there’s no grey. I think of how far we’ve come, and then it seems in the last couple of years we’ve gone backwards. It’s confusing how quickly such positive progress has been undone. I would argue that the only way we could move forward as communities, societies and nations is to listen to one another and find common ground: the things that unite us rather than drive us apart. I think this is a play that does just that, as the most charismatic voice in there is one of love and acceptance, which is a really powerful idea to be exploring at the moment.

How does the stage production differ from the film?
I was really keen to make sure that the world the film created - the wonderful, visceral taste of the 1980s in pre-gentrified South London - was captured in this production. Hanif and I have been working on the script for about a year, and what he’s done brilliantly is really flesh out the story.  Where, in a film, you can really tell a lot from a single frame, in a play you need more words and a bit more time to meet and understand the characters and the complex family dynamics. The family relationships in particular are explored more deeply. Whereas I think the film really zones in on this love story between Omar and Johnny, in this production we also get to know a lot more about Omar’s family - his cousin, his uncle and his parent’s loveless marriage. Hanif’s also really looked at Johnny’s group, and how his mates, Moose and Genghis, represent the typical far-right nationalist, racist group, and how they feel about Johnny leaving their family to go and work in the South Asian community with a Pakistani man he’s in a relationship with. It really has the essence of the film, but it’s now also peppered with a lot more complex characterisation and studies of these differing groups. It’s a fabulous production because it feels like Hanif’s written a new play rather than it just being an adaptation.

Back to the beginning... How did you get on board with this project and why did you want to be a part of it?
Every year our team at Curve get together with the Coventry Belgrade to do a contemporary world premiere play that we commission. We aim for it to be something that might encourage folk who don’t normally come to the theatre to do so, such as younger people, or people from the Asian or Afro-Caribbean communities who feel the theatre may not represent them. My Beautiful Laundrette seemed like the perfect thing, but we also thought it couldn’t possibly be available because the whole world must’ve thought to take this amazing film to the stage. So we got in touch with Hanif to tell him our ideas and he said he’d love us to do it. We’re really blessed that we got the right sort of play for Hanif to agree, and we’re so happy that he recognised the value of what we’re doing at theatres like The Curve and the Belgrade.

What was your criteria when looking to cast the roles of Omar and Johnny?
We were looking for magic, which I know sounds like cliche nonsense, but we were just looking for two actors who had a spark and something special. We were looking for people who you would believe were teenagers and working class, actors who understand what it means to be working class and to represent Johnny and Omar’s communities with real integrity and authenticity. We were looking for actors who were brave, who were passionate about the themes in the play and its love and acceptance. Doing this play now, in 2019, is a really bold and exciting move, and we needed a lead who understood the statement we were making. I’d worked with Johnny Fines before, and then the minute Omar Malik walked into the room and started reading, it just clicked instantly. We don’t even question their relationship, we just believe them - they’re simply magnetic.”

Tell us about the Pet Shop Boys’ involvement in composing the score for this particular production...
When Hanif and I were talking about the music we’d like to have in the play, I was referencing Jimmy Somerville, Blondie - all those incredible bands who were writing politically charged pop music. Pet Shop Boys featured heavily on that list. Hanif had a contact, so dropped Neil Tenant a line to ask if he’d be up for letting us use some of their songs. Neil got back to us very quickly, we pitched our idea to them and they really got it. I gave them some themes, like the laundrette and London in the 1980s, and then a song for the ending about tolerance and love having no boundaries. So they’ve written us a couple of pop songs to accompany the play, as well as giving us access to some of their iconic hits, which will underline some of the scenes. It was just so fortuitous that they were up for it, and it’s a real testament to Hanif’s writing that they saw the value of what we were trying to achieve.

What do you hope audiences - both LGBTQ+ and otherwise - take away from the play?
Well, first and foremost they’re parting with their hard-earned cash, so we hope they’re incredibly moved and entertained. But I also hope they’ll be challenged. I hope they leave My Beautiful Laundrette thinking about their own lives and communities, or considering other people’s experiences in a way they maybe hadn’t done before. I think this is a play about love, hope and young people moving the world forward. It’s a really powerful message, and I hope that vibrancy will be celebrated beyond coming to see the play. I hope audiences take the experience forward with them.”

And finally, could you sum up My Beautiful Laundrette in three words?
Full-bodied, life-affirming, wicked!

My Beautiful Laundrette shows at Curve, Leicester, from 20 September to 5 October; Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, from 29 October to 2 November & Birmingham Repertory Theatre from 5 to 9 November.


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