Writer: Meera Syal
Adaptation: Tanika Gupta
Director: Roxana Silbert
Reviewer: Tom Ralphs
Anita and Me is the story of the friendship between the well-educated daughter of an Indian family and a troubled white girl who can’t wait to leave school. It’s also a story about being the only Indian family in a white community, and growing up in a West Midlands mining village in the 1970s. Finally, it’s also a story about small town racism, and the way it wrecks a friendship. It’s in the combining of all these that Anita and Me really stands out as both amusing and insightful.
In her original book Meera Syal refashioned her own childhood into the story of Meena, Meena’s parents have refused to join their other Indian friends in Wolverhampton and have instead opted for live in Tollington. Meena plays in the yards outside the houses, a typical young girl, listening to Slade and reading Cathy and Clare’s advice column in Jackie magazine. Her unlikely friendship with Anita, the elder daughter of a woman who is abused by her husband, is the thing that changes her life as she gains confidence and forges her own identity. But even as she rebels, taking money from her mum’s purse to buy sweets, and sneaking out of the house after repeating comments Anita has made that she doesn’t fully understand, she is still the loyal daughter that everyone in the neighbourhood likes.
The first half of the play is all about the friendship, the community, and the lives of Indian families in the 70s. What really comes through is that Meena and her family are welcomed into the mining community, the colour of their skin, the country of their origin, and the cultural differences that stemmed from these, doesn’t really matter to anyone, and there is warmth and humour in all the scenes. This serves to make the racism and violence directed at the Punjabi council officer who visits to confirm the demolition of the local school in the second act, as sad as it is shocking. The language and actions of Sam Lowbridge, the local unemployed skinhead, become more senseless as he fails to understand why Meena finds it personally offensive as well as generally repulsive, and defends himself by saying he wasn’t including her family in the people he was abusing.
However, the production is careful not to go too deeply into the political issues and instead focuses on the coming of age story, and Aasiya Shah as Meena, and Laura Aramayo as Anita give excellent portrayals of the innocent well-educated schoolgirl, and the troubled child who is likely to repeat her mother’s mistakes. They capture the contradictions of their characters without ever suggesting that Meena and Anita are aware of them themselves. The same can be said of the entire production, and the script. It has the benefit of history, but doesn’t try to make it more dramatic or create a sense of awareness that wasn’t there at the time.
Bob Bailey’s set design, evoking the back yards of Midlands terraced houses and the wallpapered interiors of the same places, also captures the atmosphere in a simple unfussy way that neither glamourises or criticises the past, and the soundtrack completes the mood.
The play has a lot to fit in, and occasionally feels as if the number of storylines and characters gets in the way of letting the plot really develop, but it does capture all that was great about the book and brings the characters and community to life throughout.
Runs until 2 April 2017 | Image: Contributed