Hanif Kureishi’s 1995 novel takes its title from a bootleg Prince album and deals with the journey of an Asian student from Kent through college in London in 1987, two years before the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, an event prophesied in a book-burning furore.
Shahid Hasan is torn between his radical Muslim friends, the opportunistic hedonism of his older brother Chili and the mind-expanding affair he embarks on with his college tutor, Deedee Osgood. It’s an exuberant book full of ideological debate and vibrant club and party scenes in a panoramic view of London in the late 1980s, drenched in drugs, sex and music.
None of this excitement is transferred to the stage in Kureishi’s own script and Jatinder Verma’s leaden staging, co-produced by the National with Verma’s Tara Arts touring company. Some of the story’s cinematic fluency is hinted at in the use of some fuzzy video projections on Tim Hatley’s bare room design, but this only serves to highlight the problem.
Once the book-burning gets under way there’s a frantic chase across town to save Deedee, who’s intervened by invoking freedom of speech and possibly the police, and the stage climactically explodes in a bomb outrage that has had hardly any dramatic preparation at all. The effect, instead of civic disruption, is one of Helzapoppin on the cheap.
You can tell when a production’s in trouble when the actors seem to transmit an air of dented confidence. Admittedly Jonathan Bonnici’s Shahid plays the little lost boy card to some extent, but he lacks the drive and discriminatory wit of Kureishi’s character, while Tanya Franks’ Deedee is not remotely voluptuous enough in either body or mind.
Her wimpish, stuttering Marxist husband, Brownlow, is given a contemptuous edge by Sean Gallagher, while Robert Mountford presents an absurd outline of the sneering Chili and Shereen Martineau doubles neatly as Chili’s glamorous Pakistani wife and one of the student gang.
It was a good move on the National’s part to bring Kureishi back to the theatre, and on a project that could have struck so many chords at a time of anxiety over Islamic fundamentalism and the seedbed of terrorism. But the end result is a severe, and unadventurous, disappointment.