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Review: The Buddha of Suburbia (Swan Theatre)

Review by Raphael Kohn

 

⭐️⭐️⭐️

 

Hanif Kureishi’s possibly-autobiographical 1990 novel The Buddha of Suburbia seems like the perfect material to make a play out of. It has everything – charm, humour, a good dash of seriousness and an important message about family. And so, director Emma Rice takes her adaptation, co-adapted with the novel’s author, to the stage of the RSC’s Swan Theatre.

 

Rice and Kureishi take us back to the 1970s, all flared jeans and mullet hairstyles. Thankfully such hairstyles have died out, right? But somehow it all feels stylish here. We follow Karim, a mixed-race young man as he grows up in the suburbs of south London, discovering himself, sexuality, and his own sense of belonging in the world against a backdrop of political change and his own family’s dynamics and idiosyncrasies.

 


There’s a lot to cover. Plot lines weave in and out, characters join and exit the narrative surprisingly quickly and protagonist Karim goes on a long personal journey. If, like me, you’ve not read the book, it can feel quite overwhelming. More of a series of snapshots of Karim’s life and less of a fully-fledged narrative, Buddha is an almost three-hour race through political upheaval, questions of identity, and a lot of surprising eroticism.

 

This eroticism comes thick and fast. I counted at least four orgasms within the first thirty minutes, all staged inventively using humorous prop work with fruit and party poppers to imitate… well, you know what, as the scenes reach their climaxes. It’s a proudly queer work as well, with sex not being restricted to opposite-sex encounters, which makes the political narrative all the more important as Thatcherism begins to enter Karim’s life.



But it’s this political substance that Buddha seems to be missing. There’s plenty of narrative material in there, packed in tightly in order to fit what feels like everything in the novel. So much so, that at times, it borders on being over-filled and over-stuffed. Scenes come and go at a frighteningly fast pace, with the play’s snapshot-esque structure making occasional moments feel as if they could have done with trimming down or cutting entirely to make room for some deeper exploration of some of the themes at play.

 

But as a night out at the theatre, it’s a great experience. Rice’s production is tightly and humorously directed, with the aforementioned sexual moments being a particular standout. Engrained in throughout the production are dance numbers, choreographed brilliantly by Etta Mutfitt, which almost always serve as great interludes to allow scene changes between snapshots. These are lit particularly stylishly by Jai Morjaria to Niraj Chag’s upbeat score, mixing hits of the 70’s up together in a pumping, grooving soundtrack.



Karim narrates us along, sometimes at a microphone and lit in a spotlight as if at a comedy club. He certainly feels like a comedian, with a cheeky wink and a smile oozing endless charisma out of Dee Ahluwalia’s performance. Confident with his audience interactions and endlessly likeable, he is a perfect lead. The rest of the ensemble scurries around Ahluwalia, and each gets their moment to shine. Perhaps the luckiest of them is Rina Fatania, whose versatility between the exuberantly raunchy Marlene and the hilarious auntie Jeeta is simply brilliant. Not just a comic character, her portrayal of Jeeta gets deep into dramatic territory, which is not taken lightly.

 

Raj Bajaj gets a scene-stealing turn as Changez, who I truly felt for in his constant enthusiasm towards his character’s rather unfortunate predicament. But perhaps the biggest laughs come from Ewan Wardrop’s portrayal of Matthew Pike, a theatre director. Brilliantly meta, he breaks down the barriers of theatre with a sledgehammer, ripping up the narrative and provoking wry laughter from the press night audience.



It's funny a lot of the time. It’s serious some of the time (as one could expect from a play which touches on homophobia, racism and sexism). And while it could do with refinement to really concentrate it down (or even be split into two parts, to give each moment some more breathing room), it’s still a hilarious night out at the theatre. Maybe don’t bring your children with you, though.

 

The Buddha of Suburbia plays at the Swan Theatre until 1st June 2024. Tickets available from https://www.rsc.org.uk/the-buddha-of-suburbia/

 

Photos by Steve Tanner

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