Theatre Royal Stratford East – until 21 November 2015
Anita and Me deserves respect for Meera Syal’s semi-autobiographical 1996 novel chronicling an awkward schoolgirl’s struggle to escape the cloying embrace of her traditional Punjabi family, the only foreigners in a gritty Midlands mining village, against an uneasy background of skinhead racism.
Unfortunately, the same year Ayub Khan Din’s angry but revelatory East is East depicted a Salford Pakistani family with the same issues and has had some superb revivals including last year at Trafalgar Studios with Jane Horrocks. Doubly unfortunate: the stage version of Bend It Like Beckham also features a rebellious Punjabi girl seeking self-determination and has music, lyrics, staging and production values that simply knock the spots off Anita.
But Anita is on the GCSE syllabus and migration is again in the headlines, so a new script by Tanika Gupta has come to Stratford from Birmingham Rep with a boxy set of terraced houses that might easily be recycled for Little Voice or Beautiful Thing once the exams are over.
So often ‘original’ music seems to be shorthand for ‘derivative’ and Ben and Max Ringham’s score doesn’t buck the trend. It seems a mistake to graft it to this story, particularly when played on a feeble electronic keyboard. The only good musical moment is when, obliged to entertain visiting family, Mandeep Dhillon as Meena belts out Slade’s ‘Cum On Feel the Noize’ while Ameet Chana as her father accompanies her on the tabla.
The Brummie ladies from the ball-bearing factory are played like a fag-toting arms-akimbo wrapover-pinnied chorus from some Wolverhampton version of Carmen and it’s hard to distinguish the characters apart from Midlands comedienne Janice Connolly’s motherly and supportive neighbour Mrs Worrall.
The central theme of being isolated from home and community is shown both in Ayesha Dharker’s sensitive portrayal of Meena’s mother, struggling to bridge two worlds, and her own mother played with a light touch by Yasmin Wilde who weaves the politics of colonialism and Partition elegaically into her own family history.
But the structure leaves too little till too late: although the set transforms in the second half to a moody and under-lit canal bank where the racial confrontation takes place, it’s neither cataclysmic and dramatic nor able to reposition the characters we already know in a meaningful way.
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