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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Black Album
Cottesloe Theatre       Summer-Autumn 2009

It's easy to see the attraction and power of Hanif Kureishi's 1995 novel. It looks, objectively and satirically, at both the waning years of the Thatcher decade and the beginnings of radical Islamic fundamentalism, from a fresh viewpoint.

Unfortunately, little of its effectiveness survives the translation to the stage, even with the novelist himself as adapter.

A young British Pakistani comes to London in 1989 to attend college and encounters fellow Asians who have adopted the Yuppie life and values, others who are stumbling their way, sometimes comically, toward radical Islam, and ageing 1960s radicals trying desperately to remain relevant.

You can see the opportunities for both satire and astute social observation, along with the psychological and spiritual drama of the young man trying to find his way, and find himself, in the midst of all this.

But, while it is inevitable that a degree of simplification and thinning-out of the novel's texture would come with the move to the stage, Kureishi has reduced everything - the characters, the issues, the background, even the jokes - to the level of stereotype and cliché.

No one ever becomes more than a one-dimensional stick figure difficult to identify or empathise with - not the protagonist, who discovers his calling as a writer just as the Islam that attracts him is turning to book burning; nor the white academic who lectures on third world culture to Asian students when not taking them to her bed; nor the white ex-radical grasping for a new bandwagon to follow as communism crumbles; not even the fundamentalist leader who secretly writes poetry.

Nor do they provide much for director Jatinder Verma or the cast to work with. There are some signs of under-rehearsal in the frequency of mistimings and missed cues, but primarily in the general feel of an early read-through, with the actors still trying to find the core and colours of their characters.

Perhaps as a result, the acting throughout rises at its best to the external and signifying mode of TV soap opera, and doesn't always achieve that level.

The highest accomplishment of this play is that it may lead audiences to suspect that the novel is very much better, and send them back to it.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  The Black Album - National Theatre 2009

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