When writers adapt a novel for the stage, they must, of course, reduce it, but in this case they've shrivelled it. When, in 1991, Hanif Kureishi's auto- biographical work won the Whitbread prize for best first novel, it seemed to me that the judges had rated its novelty and politics higher than its literary value.
The familiar coming-of-age tale was made new by characters of Asian birth or background, and sympathetic by the teenage Karim's torment at the hands of south London Paki-bashers. But too many of those characters were sketchy at best, the story was formless even for one whose theme is "how I grew", and, oddly, the powerful emotions that usually accompany novels of youth and self-discovery were muted to a series of shrugs and mumbles.
Yet the book had plenty of colour and mischief and, in its long gallery of Beckenham free spirits, heartening confirmation that no degree of immigration will dilute our own dear English eccentricity.
In rewriting this novel of the sexy Seventies for Andy Graham's Snap theatre company, Graham and Roger Parsley have made a choice that seems, to put it mildly, overambitious. Not only is the cast for this sprawling, multiracial, multi-sexual narrative a mere six, giving many scenes the haplessness (though not the comedy) of a National Theatre of Brent production; the script is often awkward and feeble.
There's a clue to the problem in Parsley's programme statement that the characters in the novel "manage somehow to be at the same time both off-beat and decidedly human", and in Graham's brave cry, "I want to expose the myth of nudity and validate sexual explicitness on stage through an honesty which may at times shock, but hopefully, provoke a lot of discussion." These two, one feels, might find adapting The Tale of Flopsy Bunny a tall order.
The slipshod nature of the book has been reproduced here - Karim's father, who leaves the family for another woman, drops out of sight; Karim goes to bed with men and women with the same lack of enthusiasm. A large screen and a small television intermittently show films as unattractive as they are redundant. But what's worse is the substitution of earnestness for satire and charm: in a prologue crudely at odds with the rest, the actors recite speeches by Jawaharlal Nehru and Enoch Powell.
Though racism has been removed from the story, Karim (no longer a sharp little operator but a clueless innocent) is repeatedly exhorted by the other characters to fight it. At the end, he says he is ready, but since Sajan Uddin manifests as little excitement about the demo as he does for the duvet, less than little is sparked in us.
In the role of a luckless husband whose arranged marriage brings no sex but plenty of dishwashing, the wonderfully named Ivanhoe Norona delivered some highly comic lugub-riousness, but unfortunately The Buddha of Suburbia, on the whole, provokes the more usual kind.
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