Performance Run: Tuesday 14 - Saturday 18 February 2017

Performance Reviewed: Tuesday 14 February (Press Night)

Anita and Me is a difficult beast to try and pigeonhole. 

But then of course, that’s kind of the point.

Tanika Gupta’s latest adaptation of Meera Syal’s semi-autobiographical staple, which follows the trials and tribulations of young British Punjabi girl Meena growing up in 1970’s West Midlands* amidst a sea of cultural, geographical and generational differences, quite appropriately has something of an identity crisis itself. 

It isn’t quite a musical, and yet intermittently proceedings will be interrupted - at times almost jarringly - by actor/muso numbers which themselves fall somewhere between conventional musical productions and more stripped back, authentic affairs. Likewise, the tone and focus of the piece bandies about somewhat haphazardly, swinging from tensions and divisions in a struggling local community, to more focused nuances such as the grip of postnatal depression, to the whims and fancies of teenage girls trying to impress boys.

On paper, it sounds a mess, and in actuality very few shows could get away with such a scattershot approach to subject - not to mention tone - but with Anita and Me this eclecticism of style and approach works perfectly with the messages and ideas it is presenting. Meena (Aasiyah Shah) is a young person at a stage in her life where a whole kaleidoscope of contrasting attitudes, ideas and priorities are whirling around her, and Syal’s book and Gupta’s adaptation help demonstrate this mishmash of interest quite brilliantly.

One moment Meena is attempting to urinate in a tyre to help her new best friend impress boys. The next they are forced to face the harsh realities of racial discrimination and societal intolerance. Then, before you know it, the local shopkeeper has erupted into a completely unexpected gospel number about charitable work in Africa. 

In places, these jumps are barmy and maybe even unmotivated, but it certainly makes for a memorable, buoyant and joyful experience where you’re never quite sure what is going to happen next.

Meena is reflected mostly off of the strong female characters around her, with the majority of male characters in the show generally playing second fiddle (though Robert Mountford does great work as father Shyam). From her mother Daljit (an excellent and sympathetic Shobna Gulati) struggling with the modern trappings of being a British-Indian migrant and disappointed in the person she sees her daughter becoming, to the world weary pragmatism and wisdom of her grandmother Nanima (a hilarious and scene-stealing Rina Fatania) through to the kindly Mrs Worrall (Therese Collins), her growth, behaviour and outlook on life is repeatedly remoulded and reshaped by the women around her.

And then there is the titular Anita. Played by Laura Aramayo with bountiful exuberance and attitude, Anita is in stark contrast to the other strong female influences surrounding Meena. She’s crass, independent (mostly out of necessity) and repeatedly labelled a bad influence. It isn’t difficult to understand why - Anita is, quite frankly, not a very nice character. From atypically schoolgirl idioms such as trying on make-up and chasing male attention, through to a general selfish and ignorant streak, it’s a refreshing change that the story being told here doesn’t devolve down a route of making the character too sympathetic or, without wanting to spoil anything, too redemptive.

Despite the importance implied by the title, Anita is just another in a string of strong female influences and characters that pivot Meena’s story, and Anita is a rather unpleasant one at that. It’s an honest and realistic portrayal of friendship and how people can change and be changed by those around them.

So Anita and Me tries to be many things at once, and some could argue too many to pull off truly successfully. It’s true that the pacing and focus is choppy at best - the first act in particular just seems to stop abruptly, and there’s an inorganic nature to the structuring and use of music which can generally be quite difficult to judge as an audience member. For instance, a final scene between the two titular characters would probably have been more welcome and satisfying than another song and dance number shoehorned in. And yet, almost paradoxically, it isn’t difficult to shake the feeling that if the songs that do feature were given full productions or more sound contextualising, then they would lose some of their innate charm and spontaneity.

Some of the Black Country / West Midlands accents will have those local to these parts reaching for their Doreen videos in protest, and generally it’s the adults who bring the strongest performances to the boards (particular mentions to brilliant dual role performances from both Rebekah Hinds and Sejal Keshwala), but despite its foibles, what shines through Anita and Me is the earnest, honest nature of the storytelling and the vibrant, engaging nature of it’s characters. The show’s autobiographical roots shine through strongly and proudly, and are a testimony to the strong adaptation work done here, as well as the truthfulness of Syal’s original book.

Whilst it may lack the bite, insight and satire of, say, East is East (to almost ironically blur the religious and geographical subject lines), and its musings on youth and growing up can be found in other plays and musicals aplenty, Anita and Me is nonetheless an affirming, spirited and joyful slice of life in its myriad forms - a real bricolage of ideas, styles, approaches and cultures that shows you that regardless of religion, race, gender or age, we are not just one simple person, but rather a sum of all the ideas, influences and values around us.

And that, in truth, is a message as timely now as it has ever been.

RATING - ★★★★

Tickets: 01902 429 212  / Official Website: click