The Buddha of Suburbia – Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon

Reviewer: Peter Kessler

Writer: Hanif Kureishi

Adaptors: Emma Rice and Hanif Kureishi

Director: Emma Rice

The late Roger Michell was Hanif Kureishi’s closest and most enduring collaborator. They worked together on at least four different films and TV series (including the award-winning BBC adaptation of The Buddha of Suburbia), and they started out together in theatre at the Royal Court. Michell himself was a resident director with the Royal Shakespeare Company for many years. So the big question is: why did he never attempt a stage adaptation of Kureishi’s era-defining novel?

With this production, Emma Rice answers that question.

You would have to be bonkers to try and squeeze this sprawling coming-of-age story into two-and-a-half hours of stage time. Roger Michell was inspired, but he wasn’t crazy. Fortunately, Emma Rice is. And what she has created is a joyous, turned-up-to-eleven merry-go-round of theatre in which characters, costumes and coitus flash past at breakneck speed.

From her elegantly written, passionately enthusiastic programme notes to her infectious choice of soundtrack for the show, to an on-stage television screening Shake ‘n’ Vac adverts during the interval, this Buddha feels like a show Rice has wanted to mount her entire life. It fizzes with an infectious combination of originality and nostalgia. The recreation of the 1970s is so all-enveloping that it feels almost like Life on Mars. The illusion starts in Vicki Mortimer’s pitch-perfect costume design, adorned with floaty negligees and mid-brown leather jackets. But it goes beyond that. Somehow the actors’ chins, noses and elbows – even the way they walk – seem redolent of that funky decade. The dancing and music are irresistible. And the Y-fronts. There are so many Y-fronts in this production, every one of them shouting ‘Underwear that’s Funtawear’. In fact, the only thing missing is a bit of 70s David Bowie (a shame, given his own musical contributions to the 90s TV adaptation).

Like the novel, the story follows four tumultuous years in the life of Asian British teenager Karim (played by a charismatic Dee Ahluwalia in his debut RSC season). In the melting pot of South London in the mid-70s, Karim discovers his career, his sexuality and his values, while surrounded by a Dickensian assortment of eccentric characters including his father Haroon (a snake-hipped Ankur Bahl) who becomes the unwitting toast of London’s promiscuous intelligentsia; Sherlock Holmes fan and newly-arrived Indian immigrant Changez (Raj Bajaj in a performance of heart-tugging innocence); and posh avant-garde actress Eleanor (Bettrys Jones, one of the jewels in an already sparkling tiara of cast members), who pulls poetry out of her own vagina.

The original Buddha of Suburbia was social satire. But here we are laughing at a memory of the 1970s that goes beyond satire and becomes affectionate, exaggerated re-enactment. There’s a naïveté underpinning the hardship. When the Sex Pistols said ‘fuck’ on live TV in 1977 it was a scandal. Now it seems almost innocent.

With cast members doubling and even tripling up roles, the total number of characters in the play is well over 30, and it’s a lot to take in. Rice has made no concessions to traditional concepts like establishing characters and getting to know them. Instead, new figures are flung before us fully-formed. There is an unspoken challenge to the audience: if, like Karim, you can accept the tidal wave of new people and experiences without pausing to question where they came from, then you will go with the flow, and you’ll love the ride. Effectively, The Buddha of Suburbia concertinas one man’s upbringing into a series of perfectly rendered sketches, but it’s done with such verve, precision and imagination that it carries you along on a tsunami of corduroy trousers. It’s a mash-up of The Rake’s Progress and a 70s concept album. These are dramatized vignettes of personal development: pictures adding exhibitionism.

If this sounds like great fun, it is. And in a show of memorable moments, there are some particular standouts. Ewan Wardrop’s unbearably pretentious theatre director Matthew Pyke sporting a giant banana in lieu of his penis is an image that will live long in the memory. The sudden appearance of a puppet fox, gnashing at the bin bags outside Auntie Jeeta’s shop, has a poignant sense of significance and beauty, like a lost episode of Wildlife on One. Karim’s wastrel heartthrob Charlie (Tommy Belshaw channelling Marc Bolan to perfection) miming the execution of everyone on stage to the tune of Carly Simon singing Nobody Does It Better is not only a bravura moment of theatrical extravagance but a visual metaphor for how this very production functions: knocking things down and building them up again, like a child playing with Lego.

The smorgasbord of characters, scenes and styles could so easily become a hot mess. But this production is as sure-footed as it is wild, and while it may occasionally dip a toe in pointless excess (party poppers representing orgasms at least ten times), it does so with a knowing wink, and Rice is in total control.

Kureishi’s novel was a 1990s look back on the 1970s. This version is a Russian doll of perspective: a 2020s take on a 1990s view of the 1970s. We’re looking down through three lenses at a London full of sexual exploitation, drugs, racism and political extremism. This is done with the help of a guide: in one of the show’s many smart innovations, Karim himself acts as a stand-up compere to the events of his own life, providing a modern and uncompromisingly judgmental slant on stories and people of the era, from Roman Polanski to the National Front. Because of the sketch-like format, we can jump from an orgy scene that could stand up (pun intended) next to anything in the Carry On series, to a scene of white thugs beating up an Indian immigrant and carving the NF logo on his torso. The atmosphere spins on a sixpence, and the audience goes from raucous laughter to horrified silence in a heartbeat.

Karim’s final words, spoken across the decades to our broken 2024, have a hollow irony to them: ‘It won’t always be like this, I promise.’ Sadly, he was right. It’s worse.

Runs until 1 June 2024

The Reviews Hub Score

Original, infectiously funny, and bursting with Y-fronts

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The Reviews Hub - Central

The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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