Theatre Review: THE BUDDHA OF SUBURBIA (RSC & Wise Children at Swan Theater, Stratford-upon-Avon)

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by Lynne Weiss on May 18, 2024

in Theater-International

The Buddha of Suburbia, a lively and joyous coming-of-age story set in late 1970s suburban London is a delightful exploration of love in numerous forms, some painful, most unconventional, but all of them heartfelt. Co-adapted for the stage by Hanif Kureishi (from his novel of the same name) and director Emma Rice (Tristan & Yseult, The Wild Bride, Romantics Anonymous), it revolves around three years in the life of teen-aged Karim, magnificently portrayed by the energetic and sexy, though delightfully innocent, Dee Ahluwalia in his RSC debut.

The Company
Dee Ahluwalia

The play, which opened 30 April at Swan Theater, Stratford-upon-Avon, opens with Karim in denim bell-bottomed pants, his dark hair flowing over his collar, introducing himself as Karim Amar, a born-and-bred Englishman—almost—from Beckenham, a south London suburb. It’s the 3rd of May, 1979, during an era of strikes, of food and fuel shortages, of 13% inflation, of police violence that may have led to the death of an anti-Nazi protester and a country on the verge of an election.

Ankur Bahl as Haroon, Bettrys Jones as Margaret and Dee Ahluwalia as Karim
Bettrys Jones as Margaret and Raj Bajaj as Changez

Rachana Jadhav‘s neatly designed multi-level structure gives way to a dance party, where Karim explains that these are his friends and family gathered to celebrate his new job. One by one he introduces them—his father Haroon (Ankur Bahl), his mother Margaret (Bettrys Jones), his friend Jamila (Natasha Jayetileke), his Aunt Jeeta (Rina Fatania), and the love of his life Charlie (Tommy Belshaw)—who is no longer living. The dance party continues to the Bee Gees’ “Tragedy,” the number one song in the UK in February of 1979.

Natasha Jayetileke as Jamila and Dee Ahluwalia as Karim

The stage has been set: we have our cast of characters celebrating a mysterious job offer in the face of tragedy. Karim winds the clock back three years, to a time when his father, clad only in blue briefs, proudly (and humorously but impressively!) displays his yoga asanas and announces that he has been invited to the home of Eva (Lucy Thackeray), a woman drawn to his spiritual practices and the mother of Charlie, a boy a year ahead of Karim in school and whom Karim much admires. While the adults at the party receive Haroon’s yoga instruction, Karim and Charlie go up to Charlie’s room, smoke weed, and fool around. But when Karim goes looking for his dad, he finds him having sex with Eva.

Rina Fatania as Jeeta

Except that in the play, it’s all much better than what I’m describing. Sexual organs are portrayed by bananas and other fruits; orgasms are indicated by explosive pops and bursts of confetti. Karim’s sexual experiments with Charlie are far from his first. He and Jamila, a great admirer of Simone de Beauvoir, have been going at it quite enthusiastically for some time. This joyous teenage sexuality is brought up short, however, when it comes crashing up against the problems of Karim and Jamila’s parents: Karim’s concern for his mother in the face of his father’s adultery, and Jamila’s concern for her mother, who suffers abuse at the hands of her father.

The Company
Simon Rivers as Anwar

But much as Karim worries about his mother, he sympathizes with his father’s desire to be with Eva, a woman who shares his interests and admires him. It’s Eva who puts Karim in touch with a theater director who casts Karim as Mowgli in The Jungle Book, a role that requires Karim to darken his skin and perform in a loincloth while speaking with an Indian accent. Some of Karim’s friends and family are outraged by his willingness to advance what they see as offensive stereotypes; others, however, congratulate him on his performance.

Lucy Thackeray

Significantly, however, Karim’s performance is seen by Matthew Pyke (Ewan Wardrop), who invites him to be part of his next production. Karim’s career as an actor is launched, but not without further sexual and emotional complications. (I did find it uncomfortable that Bettrys Jones, who plays Karim’s mother Margaret, is also cast as Eleanor, the neurotic and sexually complicated woman he meets through Pyke’s production.)

Ewan Wardrop as Matthew Pyke
Natasha Jayetileke as Jamila and Rina Fatania as Jeeta

Meanwhile, Jamila’s father Anwar (Simon Rivers), has undertaken a hunger strike, citing Gandhi as his inspiration, to force Jamila into accepting an arranged marriage to Changez (Raj Bajaj). Jamila worries that if she refuses the marriage, her father will take his rage out on her mother.

Lucy Thackeray as Eva and Ankur Bahl as Haroon

Some of the most effective scenes are carried out in pantomime, like the one in which Haroon tells Margaret he is leaving her and Jones and Bahl tell us everything we need to know about that conversation with their body language and facial expressions. Haroon and Margaret and Eva develop a complex relationship as do Jamila and Changez. Jamila, despite acquiescing to her father’s demand that she accept an arranged marriage, creates a relationship with Changez on her terms. And Wardrop is excellent as the brilliant director-teacher revealed as a manipulative and exploitative monster. He wants to create a play about class and sees Karim as the focus of that project, oblivious (as was the director who cast Karim as Mowgli) to the role of racism in the way he sees Karim.

Tommy Belshaw as Charlie

Does this nearly three-hour production take on too much? Possibly. Though the many relationships and subplots are connected through their association to Karim, at times the production felt a bit baggy. Despite Karim’s initial claim that Charlie is the love of his life, Charlie seems tangential to the story line and unconvincing as anything but a youthful sexual obsession.

Simon Rivers, Natasha Jayetileke as Jamila and Deven Modha
Ankur Bahl as Haroon

But baggy isn’t necessarily bad. The dance numbers by choreographer Etta Murfitt, and upbeat music of the late seventies helped a lot, and even after Margaret Thatcher became prime minister on 4 May 1979, we still had Stevie Wonder singing “I’ll be loving you—always” and that is how the show ends, the audience clapping along in celebration of this wonderful portrayal of a messy and yet decidedly exuberant embrace of the contradictions of life and the many ways that people struggle to find and express their love.

Tommy Belshaw as Charlie and Dee Ahluwalia as Karim
Dee Ahluwalia as Karim and the company in The Buddha of Suburbia.

photos © Steve Tanner / RSC

Raj Bajaj as Changez

The Buddha of Suburbia
Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
ends on 1 June, 2024
for tickets, call 01789 331111 or visit RSC

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