The diversity of culture in Britain today is very different to the world that Anita & Me is set in; the 1970s Black Country was much less culturally rich than 40 years on. Meera Syal’s semi-autobiographical novel focusses on Meena (Mandeep Dhillon) who grows up as a part of a small village community as a typically curious and rebellious 12-year-old girl. Meena’s family are Punjabi which, to the white working class Tollington community seems exotic, exciting and altogether entrancing. Syal’s debut novel is now engrained in the next generation as a staple text in the English GCSE curriculum.
Meena’s parents, Daljit (Ayesha Darker) and Shyam (Ameet Chana), are expecting another child, which Meena has doubts about as any older sibling would. In typical tween rebellion, she befriends neighbour and role model Anita (Jalleh Alizadeh), who has the long luscious blonde hair and outgoing personality that Meena has always dreamed of. Anita has no problem wrapping boys like Sam (Joseph Drake) around her little finger, but the seemingly perfect exterior plasters over the cracks in her own family life. As the friendship progresses, Anita’s insecurities and imperfections become more apparent, leaving Meena with a choice – embrace her culture (synonymous in this community with individuality) or reject herself to conform to the cool, hip, rebellious life that Anita is drawing her into.
Anita & Me has gone from book to film and now, through Tanika Gupta’s adaptation, onto stage. In its transformation, the story has metamorphosed into a musical, losing all its credibility and insight. It is blanketed by a fusion of Bollywood and jazz hands. Director Roxana Silbert has chosen to draw focus on the superficial musicality of the work and this ultimately makes it much more difficult to connect to the deeper topics surrounding acceptance, tolerance and the embracing of one’s background. It also doesn’t help that the majority of the characters don’t have strong enough voices to carry the songs, which themselves are often shoehorned into the story in an awkward and unappealing fashion. The first half of the show is a fairly amateur attempt at a comedy musical; the story doesn’t flow, the songs don’t come naturally and even the actors at times seem uneasy with the material. Gupta and Silbert would have done better to cut out all the songs with one exception – the interludes whereby Meena sings to agony aunts Cathy and Claire from magazine Jackie highlight her gradual coming of age and would benefit from being the only musical aspects to the show.
The second half does manage to claw back some poignancy and reveal the layers built into the story, but truthfully is fighting an uphill battle. Not to say that there aren’t some touching moments. The conversation between neighbour Mrs Worrall (Janice Connolly) and visiting Grandma Nanima (Yasmin Wilde) is particularly touching; both sit outside after a street party swapping stories like old friends with no hostility towards their cultural differences. The concern that Meena shows for Anita is similarly really well brought out by Dhillon; touches of childlike embarrassment as Anita is introduced to Indian cuisine for the first time are intermingled with Meena’s initial pleas to her parents to invite Anita round in the first place.
Dhillon does a commendable job of portraying the main character’s story, with a clear progression from the childlike girl that steals sweets from the shop, to the more mature lady that defends her beliefs against those she used to call friends. Dhillon has heart and guts, staying true to the character, just as Meena would stay true to herself. Nanima (Wilde) is the other standout performance in the production, injecting some light-hearted comedy to lift the whole families’ spirits at a time when everyone is falling apart. Whilst other leading cast members seem to work well together, they don’t match the ability of these two and as such leave the performance as merely average in execution.
Syal has written a wonderful book and turned that into a well-crafted film. Honest, truthful and insightful, it is a progressive piece of writing that champions individuality, defending ones beliefs and staying true to oneself. These topics are not well combined with the Bollywood and 70s punk mash-ups that this musical has decided upon. Fusion can so often breed incredible new work but, as is clear in this case, it can equally often leave a bit of a mess in its wake.
Anita & Me is playing Theatre Royal Stratford East until 21 November. For more information and tickets, see the Stratford East website. Photo by Ellie Kurttz.