Monday, 16 November 2015

'Anita and Me' at the Theatre Royal Stratford East

Last week we went to see the new play, 'Anita and Me' based on Meera Syal's book of the same name at the Theatre Royal Stratford East. In the programme it's actually credited as 'By Meera Syal, adapted by Tanika Gupta'. I read the book years ago shortly after it first came out and long before it was added to the national schools syllabus and it yearningly evoked the early 70s and growing up in a small village. It was made into a film a few years ago (which I didn't see) but when I saw it was going to open at Stratford then I had to get tickets.

The play tells the tale of 13 year old Meena over the summer of 1973, opening with being released from school for the long summer holiday and ending with her going to the grammar school and the family moving from the village to the big city of Wolverhampton. In between we see friendships develop and fall apart, a new baby brother born and granny visiting from the Punjab and through all of it we see an energetic and rebellious Meena and her sometimes best friend, Anita.

There are some changes from the book (inevitably) and, since it's billed as a 'play with music' then Meena's next door neighbour happens to play in a band and has his keyboard on stage to play along to some of the songs. It's not a musical and there aren't that many songs but songs are in the mix. And some foot-tapping bangra as well.  They're still the only Asian family in the village so we see some interaction with the white folks as well as visits from aunty and uncle encouraging them to move to Wolverhampton to be with other Indian families. And we see Meena grow up that summer and be brave enough to challenge former friends who become racist skinheads. It's all in there somewhere.

As we walked in the music that was playing helped to set the scene - all from the early 70s obviously. The stage was set as the yard in front of rows of 2-up 2-down terraced houses and it was quickly populated by school children escaping for their summer holidays, followed by the women of the village parading on. It was very busy and great fun and then they started speaking - or rather Meena started speaking - and the thick midlands accent made it difficult to follow. I suspect the reason her accent was so thick was to show she's from the midlands, born and bred, whereas her parents were from the Punjab but it made hard work of following some of the dialog. Anita didn't speak like that.  I also thought that Meena was a bit, well, grown up to pretend to be 13. I could also have done without the fawn cardigan over her head pretending to be blond hair for most of the first half. O well….

I liked Jalleh Alizadeh as Anita, the bad girl next door. She played her spot on as the popular girl with the awful home life. I also liked Mandeep Dhillon as Meena - especially her rendition of 'Cum On Feel The Noize' by SLADE - despite being a bit to old ( or well developed) for the role. Ayesha Dharker was good as Meena's mother and I'm sure I've seen her in something else I liked. But I think my favourite was Yasmin Wilde as Nanima, the granny from the Punjab who can fart with the best of 'em!

I enjoyed it despite a few flaws. I suspect there'll be a re-write before it's put on again but it should definitely be produced again - there's some good material here that shouldn't be lost. It's on for another week or so at Stratford so pop along if you want to see it, the first run of a new play that's bound to appear again but slightly differently.

The next time I have the opportunity to speak to Meera Syal (and I've met her a few times) I'll have to ask if Meena became a punk in the late 70s. I suspect she did. I bet there's another story in there somewhere...

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