Writer: Tanika Gupta from the book by Meera Syal
Director: Roxana Silbert
Reviewer: Clare White
Following a sell-out run at Birmingham REP in 2015, Anita and Me returns for a 2017 spring tour, premiering at the Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton.
The popular semi-autobiographical novel by Wolverhampton-born writer and actress Meera Syal was made into a film in 2002 and is now a GSCE English text. An endearing coming-of-age tale, it follows the story of Meena, a young British Punjabi girl growing up in the fictional Midlands mining village of Tollington in the 1970s. While her proud Punjabi family is determined to preserve their culture and give their children the best opportunities, strong-willed Meena is eager to embrace western lifestyles and desperate to fit in with her cool and confident new friend Anita. Meena finds herself caught between two cultures while struggling to make sense of her place in the world.
Described as a ‘play with music’ rather than a musical, Tanika Gupta’s stage adaptation features original compositions by Ringham Brothers, which at times feel a bit out of place, but overall add to the atmosphere and narrative. Save The Heathen Souls sung by the local shopkeeper Mrs Ormerod (Rebekah Hinds) is particularly funny.
The play is difficult to define – a mishmash of tones and genres exploring issues of culture, adolescence and racism while touching on themes of domestic violence, postnatal depression and immigration, but also being offering a brilliantly comic observation of those tricky teenage years and of life in the Black Country in the 1970s. One minute Meena is trying to impress Anita by stealing sweets and weeing on a tyre and the next Mr Bhatra, an Asian counsellor, is brutally beaten in a racially motivated attack. The audience is taken on rollercoaster of emotions, and while occasionally confusing, it’s certainly never dull.
There are strong performances from the young leads Aasiya Shah and Laura Aramayo as Meena and Anita respectively. Shah captures the spirit of energetic Meena, while Aramayo’s portrayal of Anita is spot on – feisty and arrogant with an underlying vulnerability of a troubled teen. Ex-Coronation Street actress Shobna Gulati and Robert Mountford are equally as good as Meena’s exasperated parents.
Culturally, the two girls are poles apart, but it’s their experience of family that highlights the differences between them. Meena comes from a loving, educated and flourishing extended family, while Anita is a neglected child living in poverty and yet, for the most part, Meena is desperate to be like her. Anita is abandoned by her selfish mother, while Meena is nurtured by strong female influences around her – her mother Daljit, played by the fabulous Gulati, her Aunty Shaila (Sejal Keshwala), caring neighbour Mrs Worrell (Therese Collins) and her formidable grandmother Nanima, hilariously portrayed by Rina Fatania.
The story is as relevant now as it was when the novel was published in 1996, a colourful portrayal of teenage troubles, fish fingers, friendship, with important messages about cultural diversity and identity and the added novelty of familiar Black Country humour. While at times confusing and chaotic, the production offers plenty of light and shade and at its heart is a poignant, honest and funny story. Bostin’.
Runs until 18 February 2017| Image: Contributed