After a run at the National Theatre that was met with largely lukewarm-to-poor reviews, Hanif Kureishi’s The Black Album, adapted from his novel of the same name, has gone on tour to seek its fortune elsewhere. Although entertaining, it cannot be denied that the play itself, overwhelmed with the task of examining the explosive trio of faith, politics and censorship, struggles to come alive under Jatinder Verma’s direction.
Jonathan Bonnici as Shahid is likeable as a British Asian student with a fondness for Shelley, but is too sincere to make his extracurricular activities – casual drug-taking and liaisons with his lecturer – seem in any way believable. Near-death convulsions after a wild night on ecstasy pass by in an awkward, melodramatic moment, and he generally fails to inject the power required to lift Shahid from the stage into the audience’s hearts. A frenzied debate in which he condemns book censorship is the only moment when his performance moves from mildly engaging to excellent.
The play’s progress deeper and further into fundamentalism is carefully drawn out, however; you hardly realise the danger until the slightly ridiculous Chad (Nitin Kundra) is brandishing a cleaver inside a house besieged by racists, and no one’s laughing anymore. The mentality of the Islamic group of students that Shahid joins, with its mix of extremism and ideals, is beautifully handled with both humour and seriousness. Kureishi’s talent as a writer is evident, but sadly it is fully-formed characters that are the casualties of downsizing his novel into a script, as Shahid’s friends fail to connect with the audience as individuals, and skirt alarmingly around the very Asian stereotypes that the play is trying to avoid.
What is examined particularly well is identity crisis, a truly contemporary issue. British and Asian influences subtly contrast and merge through all the characters, regardless of their allegiances. Shahid’s brother, Chili (Robert Mountford), has made a suitable marriage within the Pakistani community, yet is in cahoots with a former skinhead, while Riaz (Alexander Andreou), identifying ostensibly with his Pakistani heritage, still arrays himself in an expensive Paul Smith shirt and tartan trousers.
Debate is intelligently alive and well in The Black Album, but it’s a classic case of preaching to the converted. Theatre-goers by their very nature do not need to be convinced that censorship of the arts is a bad thing, and looking around the auditorium, no one looks as if they’re taking a quick break from racially abusing someone in the street. The play is entertaining despite its flaws, and undoubtedly funny, but sadly there is nothing new to be learnt here.