Thursday, November 19, 2015

ANITA AND ME at Stratford East - Meera Syal's novel comes to the stage

In 1996 ANITA AND ME was published and was an immediate success for first-time novelist Meera Syal.  Since then it has won the Betty Trask Award for first-time novelists, Syal adapted it for a 2002 film version as well as appearing it and has also become a set book n English Literature exams.

Syal's semi-autobiographical novel has now been turned into a stage show at the perfect home for it, the Theatre Royal Stratford East.  The stage version is adapted by Tanika Gupta and is an uneasy mix of music and drama but it is one that Stratford East's legendary figurehead Joan Littlewood would probably have approved of it's mix of music and politics within a raggedy production.

The story takes place in the 1970s in a fictional midlands town and centres on the teenage Meena who straddles two worlds: her traditional Indian home life where her parents have great ambitions for her future and the outside world of Tollington where she yearns to fit in with her contemporaries, in particular the local tearaway Anita.

Meena and Anita have an uneasy relationship, their friendship is not one that can last but they fascinate each other, the one jealous of what they think the other have: Meena wants Anita's freedom, Anita wants Meena's loving family background.

Meena's father Shyam and mother Daljit cannot understand why their daughter is so enamoured with the gobby, sluttish teenager but are also facing their own problem's when Daljit is overwhelmed by having a new baby but the family dynamic takes an interesting turn when they arrange for her mother to fly to the UK to help her with the baby.

Meena slowly grows to appreciate her Nanima and her renewed connection to her family makes her to reevaluate her relationship with her increasingly wayward best friend, especially as Anita is now the girlfriend of Sam, a former friend of Meena who is now a right-wing skinhead.  It was an enjoyable enough show but apart from the occasional sharp insight into Anita's miserable family home or the slow creep of the racist right that surrounded Meena and her family, it was all a bit too reverentially cute.

The performances were mostly all drawn slightly too large but subtlety is rarely the Stratford East way.  There were however nice performances from Yasmin Wilde as the long-suffering Nanima, Kiren Jogi as Meena's middle-class aunt Shaila and Ayesha Dharker as Daljit.  Mandeep Dhillon as Meena and Jalleh Alizadeh as Anita were both effective but at times were obviously too old for their roles.

Roxana Silbert's direction kept the pace swift and breezy but the score by Ben & Max Ringham and Tanika Gupta felt intrusive and stalled the action rather than moving it forward.

The show ended in a celebratory bhangra dance with a final shower of confetti that successfully wiped a lot of the show's niggles out of mind.  So... a nice show but lacking the sharp insight of Syal's original.

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