L-R, Mandeep Dhillon (Meena) and Janice Connolly (Mrs Worrall). Photo - Ellie Kurttz
We are reminded that, as the region becomes divided along economic and religious lines, its occupants were forced to flee abroad for economic safety"
“Anita and Me” is a stage adaptation of the comedian/actress/writer Meera Syal’s award-winning 1996 book of the same name.
It tells the story of Meena, a British Punjabi girl, and her relationship with her surroundings, her culture, and her English neighbour (‘Anita’) as she grows up in the fictional village of Tollington in the 1970s. Setting the scene with a song-and-dance routine, we are introduced to Meena as a sheltered young girl who begins to view her parents - and the ‘outside world’ - differently with the onset of puberty. Wishing to be seen as ‘cool’, she soon makes friends with Anita, the daughter of a local ne’er-do-well.
L-R, Mandeep Dhillon (Meena) and Ayesha Dharker (Daljit). Photo - Ellie Kurttz
In this adaptation, her friendship is merely one of several relationships that define Meena on her way out of Tollington (and childhood). The connection with her father is as important as any, and it is a joy to see an Indian patriarch depicted on stage as loving, understanding, and respectful of his daughter’s feelings. Her relationship with (white) neighbour - ‘Mrs Connolly’ - is another that is beautifully observed, and touchingly revealed.
However, the most pivotal moment is the arrival of her grandmother, ‘Nanima’. The subtle and evocative way this character connects Meena to generations-past - while still engaging with (for-then) modern Britain – is, for me, the crux of the piece. Her farewell speech to Meena is especially affecting.
As other relatives reveal themselves (‘Uncle Amman’ and ‘Aunty Shaila’ from Wolverhampton), we get to see the combination of gossip, bonding, snobbery, boastfulness, support, and family-pride that should be familiar to many so-called immigrants who have lived in England post-50’s.
Indeed, it is from these well-judged family gatherings that we get, not just a sense of community, but also gentle – yet sharp - references to a colonial power’s role in subjugating, fleecing, and separating a country. We are reminded that, as the region becomes divided along economic and religious lines, its occupants were forced to flee abroad for economic safety. Sound familiar?
The integration of ‘live music’ elements (especially the neighbour’s piano-accompaniment) help give the production a comfy, familiar feel"
These moments are nurturing and instructive for the young Meena, and serve to remind a modern audience that only the locations have changed. At one point a character tells us that ‘the bulldozers aren’t destroying the village, just the school’; in another scene we are told that – in India – to be ‘poor and clever’ is not a good combination; I cannot help feeling that the two are linked – if not by geography – than by contemporary relevance. Another of the more eye-opening moments is a neighbour (‘Mrs Omerod’) making an impassioned gospel-like ‘song-and-dance’ about the need to ‘save the heathen soul’. This, and her later suggestion to ‘send bibles to starving children in Africa’, reminds us of the insidiousness of (so-called) ‘Christian charity’, and the patronising - often harmful - aspects of an ignorant liberal agenda.
The integration of ‘live music’ elements (especially the neighbour’s piano-accompaniment) help give the production a comfy, familiar feel; the tabla/harmonium version of Slade’s “Cum On, Feel the Noize” is a musical highlight. Although the original songs aren’t instantly memorable, they are effective and – as such - kudos must go to Musical Director Tarek Merchant, who also plays ‘Ned’ (the piano-playing neighbour), and ‘Bazzer’ on stage.
Ameet Chana (Shyam). Photo - Ellie Kurttz
Bob Bailey’s fabulous ‘terraced-housing’ set-design is a great plus; versatile and expressive in equal measure, it allows the story to be both insular and to speak of horizons – and locations – further afield.
The performances are good, although some actors look a little old to be playing the young versions of the characters (anyone used to 70s/80s sitcoms will hardly notice). Special mention must go to Mandeep Dhillon (as ‘Meena’), Ameet Chana (as the father ‘Shyam’), Janice Connolly (as ‘Mrs Worrall), and Yasmine Wilde (as ‘Nanima’ and ‘Mrs Lowbridge’), all of whom get to play different shades of humour and pathos.
The tone of this piece is nostalgic, and almost contemplative. There are moments of ‘threat’ (e.g.; a racially-motivated attack, a planned motorway, and a reference to Enoch Powell’s racially-charged “Rivers of Blood” speech) but, for the most part, it is a love-letter to far simpler times.
By the end, as we see the family preparing to relocate to the huge metropolis that is Wolverhampton with hope and optimism, there is a desire to warn them of the 35-odd years that may follow.
However, after the lack of cynicism – dare I say it, joy - with which Meena tells her story, do we wish to spoil the mood? The fact that we might think to stop and ask the question says much for the quiet strength of this production, as well as Meera Syal’s original work.
Info: Anita and Me is at Theatre Royal Stratford East until November 21, 2015. Book tickets