Following in the footsteps of hit shows Bend it like Beckham and East is East comes Anita and Me, an adaptation of Meera Syal’s 1997 novel, based on the author’s own childhood years. 13-year-old Meena lives in the small mining village of Tollington in the Midlands, and she’s going through a bit of a phase. Her mum’s about to have a baby, her dad couldn’t be more thrilled about it, and neither of them seems to have noticed how fed up she is. So when Anita Rutter, the most popular girl at school, decides she wants to be friends, Meena can’t believe her luck. But over the next few months, the girls’ new-found friendship will be put to the test, as both their lives and their neighbourhood face dramatic changes.
There’s plenty that’s good about Anita and Me. It’s an enjoyable story, with plenty of irreverent humour, and tackles some thorny issues head-on. It’s the 1970s, and some people are racist – that’s just the way it is. And even if, for the most part, Meena’s neighbours don’t mean any harm, playwright Tanika Gupta still has no intention of making excuses for them. The result is occasionally a bit uncomfortable (I know I winced more than once), but in an era where political correctness is our natural reaction to everything, it’s also oddly refreshing to see a play that’s so uncompromising. The music, composed by Ben and Max Ringham, captures well the blend of cultures, and the play as a whole is a charming portrayal of what it was like to grow up as a Punjabi teenager in Britain at that time.
That said, I struggled to really love Anita and Me, which doesn’t quite have the irresistible energy I was expecting. Part of the problem is that it feels like too much happens, too quickly. The play is only a little over two hours long, and tries to cram a lot in to that time – so scenes end abruptly, with little or no resolution, and before we know it, we’ve moved on to the next bit of the story. Even the big dramatic climax is all over in a couple of minutes. And so the central relationship between Meena and Anita gets a bit lost in among the rest of the action – charity fundraisers for Africa, campaigns against the demolition of the local school, Anita’s strained relationship with her mum, Meena’s unwillingness to conform to traditional Indian culture… There’s so much going on that there’s little time left to focus on the development of the central story.
As a result of this, it’s difficult to really get attached to any of the characters, though most of them are likeable enough – Janice Connolly’s kindly next door neighbour, Mrs Worrall, is a particular delight, and Ameet Chana and Ayesha Dharker are impressive as Meena’s parents. Meanwhile Meena herself, played by Mandeep Dhillon, is just wide-eyed and innocent enough that we can forgive her for being such a stroppy teenager. Joseph Drake and Jalleh Alizadeh have perhaps the most interesting characters in bad boy Sam and rebellious Anita, whose frustrations at their own troubled situations eventually boil over in a way that I certainly didn’t see coming.
Anita and Me has the potential to be a really high-energy, entertaining production – easily on a par with the likes of Bend it like Beckham – but it’s not quite there yet. There’s just a bit too much going on, and it doesn’t feel like we ever really get to the heart of the relationship between the title characters. But even so, this is a fun evening, with plenty to enjoy, a lot of laughs – and some interesting dance moves.
Review by Liz Dyer
Meera Syal’s much-loved novel bursts onto the stage for the very first time this Autumn. Adapted for the stage by the award-winning playwright, Tanika Gupta, and with specially composed music by Ben and Max Ringham, Anita and Me paints a colourful portrait of village life in 1970’s West Midlands during the era of flares, power cuts and glam rock. Directed by Roxana Silbert, the production transfers to Theatre Royal Stratford East from 29 October, after the world premiere at Birmingham REP.
Anita and Me is a poignant coming-of-age tale that follows Meena, the irreverent teenage daughter of the only Punjabi family in the mining village of Tollington. When she becomes friends with the impossibly feisty Anita, she thinks she’s found her soul mate but her world is turned upside down and she finds herself caught between her two cultures.
Anita and Me
29th October – 21st November, 2015
Theatre Royal Stratford East, Gerry Raffles Square, London E15 1BN