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The Buddha of Suburbia

The Buddha of Suburbia. Photo by Steve Tanner.

The Buddha of Suburbia, Swan Theatre, RSC Stratford, until June 1.

Review by Charles Barker

What fun this staging of Hanif Kureishi’s coming of age novel in the 1970s is – with great music, dance routines, funny one-liners and outrageous, slapsticky sex scenes.

The book was largely autobiographical and one can only marvel at the sex Kureishi seems to have enjoyed. Here he romps with a voracious (female) cousin, a (male) friend and someone else’s wife at a swinging party. He even comes in for some unwanted attention from an unusual quarter which will have you squirming.

The brilliant actors keep their clothes on but bananas and melons are brought in to the action and party poppers are set off to indicate the fun coming to a climax, so to speak. A lot of party poppers are expended for our entertainment.

This adaptation by director Emma Rice with Kureishi himself, is hilarious and cleverly done, but the fun is in danger of eclipsing somewhat the grittier edge to the story.

The book was about a young man of mixed race exploring his sexuality, but also struggling to find his place in the England of the late 70s when overt racism was rife and the National Front seemed to be on the march.

The Kureishi character Karim (Dee Ahluwalia) tells us of the difficulties of being treated like an outsider when you don’t feel like one. As he says: “My name is Karim Amar and I am an Englishman born and bred. Almost”.

But much of the grimness of the winter of discontent and the Thatcher years that followed are only hinted at, and the National Front unpleasantness happens away from the spotlight, and to other people. Karim (Kureishi) himself seems to have a relatively smooth ride.

Ankur Bahl as Haroon, Bettrys Jones as Margaret, Dee Ahlumalia as Karim. Photo by Steve Tanner.

Although his parents split up after his eccentric dad Haroon, played by Ankur Bahl, is adopted as something of a guru (the Buddha of the title) by trendy suburbanites, he finds his way into acting and falls under the spell of theatrical director and creepy sexual predator Matthew Pyke – a hilarious turn by Ewan Wardrop.

And it mostly ends well, although there are casualties along the way. Karim is used but he does his share of using. He discards people he outgrows. And one, Charlie (brilliantly played by Tommy Belshaw), the friend with whom he energetically discovers his bisexuality, doesn’t survive.

Emma Rice has created a highly effective time capsule, taking us back to those grim 70s. The set is spare but evocative. And did we really wear those flared jeans and have our hair quite that long? Of course we did.

And going big on the humour and sex relies on the cast carrying it off – and they certainly do that. The performances are excellent all round. Despite the quibbles, a highly entertaining night.


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