Reviewed at King’s Theatre, Edinburgh – until 1 April 2017
Guest reviewer: Martin Gray
Seventies teenager Meena lives in Tollington, a former mining village in England’s Black Country in Anita and Me. Meena is a thoroughly British Asian, but mum Daljit and dad Shyam have a different perspective, having left their native India to give their daughter every opportunity – “We’re Indian and clever. Awkward combination”. Shyam is in love with England, a little starry-eyed, while Daljit is more realistic, keen to absorb the best of British but well aware it’s far from the perfect society.
The glamour of schoolmate neighbour Anita blinds Meena to her faults – she’s ignorant and rather feral – but Meena has her eyes opened when ‘progress’ that’s going to rip the heart out of the village brings simmering tensions to the surface…
There’s a lot to like about this play, based on actress/National Treasure Meera Syal’s semi-autobiographical novel. The characters have a truthfulness to them that draws you into their story. The Seventies setting is nicely sketched rather than ladled on like pink custard. The physical set is a marvel, a convincing terrace with surprising solidity for something that so quickly shifts shape when we need to go from external to internal.
But there are problems, the biggest of which is that while the Indian accents are clear as a bell, the Black Country brogue is unintelligible for much of the time, particularly in the case of Laura Aramayo’s Anita. The problem is exacerbated when the cast breaks into song – the closing number features some fun Bollywood-style moves but as for what they were singing, well, I got ‘Tollington’ but that was it.
It’s not as if this show even requires songs – the characters and story are compelling enough without a need for the extended ensemble to wander on every now and then for a community theatre-style singalong. Why are working class white and Asian folk singing Young, Gifted and Black? What’s the point of an early song about women ruling the workplace when the subject never comes up again? Do we really need neighbour Ned, who sits outside with his piano in case anyone feels a ditty coming on?
The only musical treatment with a purpose is Meena’s regular pleas to Jackie magazine agony aunts Cathy and Claire, which tell us how she’s feeling and that she has a sharp mind – she’s obviously making the rhymes up on the fly; but they don’t sound very nice, as Meena screeches them like the kid she is.
Aasiya Shah gives a winning performance as the girl on the verge of womanhood, her eyes gradually opening to the political amid the personal. Her movement is perfect, blending the charm of the child with the surliness of the teenager. The skilled Shobna Gulati and Robert Mountford are hugely likeable as her parents, warm but never wet. And while the words aren’t always clear, Laura Aramayo expertly conjures up an outwardly tough kid terrified to admit that she’s hurting.
A scene showing her admiration for Daljit’s traditional Indian garb is wonderfully played. The accent is likely a case of too much authenticity. I can imagine this production going down brilliantly in the Midlands but director Roxana Silbert might have asked the cast to tone things down for the tour.
Silbert delivers a nicely paced production of Tanika Gupta’s script, with each scene a sharp vignette that pushes the story forward. The luminous Rina Fatania could easily have stolen all her scenes as grandma Nanima, a fascinating character blending comedy with real, potent tragedy, but Silbert and Fatania refuse to unbalance the story.
Also standing out are Rebekah Hinds, Aaron Virdee and Sejal Keshwala, who do double duty in very distinct roles; Therese Collins as the kindly Mrs Worrall, always on hand with jam tarts and sympathy; and an unfortunately, but pointedly, named ‘dog’ operated by the energetic Megan McCormick, another two-role player.
The posters sell Anita and Me as a big old comedy but it’s more than that. It’s funny, yes, but it’s also poignant and powerful. A crisper production and it might have been perfect.