Anita and Me at The King’s Theatre Edinburgh was a production that I had been looking forward to for some time as people that I know had such fond memories of the original 1996 novel by Meera Syal and the 2002 film adaptation. The book is also now used as a GCSE set text for English literature, so I was expecting a lot from this show…sadly it delivered very little.
I have to admit now in this review that I have not read the book (only a synopsis) and have not seen the film, so this was my first real introduction to Meena, a British Punjabi girl (the “Me” in this title), and her world. This does mean though that I am reviewing this performance entirely on its own merits as a theatrical production.
From the outset things looked like everything was going to be very good as before the performance started a background of 70s music including Slade, T-Rex and Stevie Wonder played throughout the theatre, and the set was impressive. Set and costume designer Bob Bailey has done a great job recreating those classic two up two down red brick houses so associated with working class areas of this part of England. For the story though our setting is the fictional mining village of Tollington, near Wolverhampton.
I can see easily why the novel is now on the GCSE study list as there are so many issues that are raised in this story – cultural identity, racism, cultural differences, the loss of jobs, economy, social values differing between cultures, working class problems…the list goes on. Sadly however with the decision at some point to make this production reliant upon so many forgettable musical numbers and comedy that is often forced and at times crude and played it seems for nothing more than shock effect at times, the real story here gets buried underneath all of this for the most part of the first act. Much of the comedy actually reminded me of a dreadful sit-com of the time “Love Thy Neighbour”. Anyone who remembers this show from the 70s will know what a low point in British television “so called humour” this show was. Oddly enough though, some of that style of humour still raised a laugh or two with some audience members, so perhaps we have sadly not really moved on as far as we like to think we have in some areas. If ever a production needed to be staged as a straight dramatic piece then Anita and Me was it.
There just seem to be so many problems here. Meena has been changed from the nine year old of the book, to a 13 year old. This shift into teenage years alters the childhood innocence of the book and totally changes the relationship between Meena and Anita. Anita (Laura Aramayo) is simply not a nice character (that’s not Laura’s fault, just the way her part is written), and it is hard to see how a young girl like Meena (Aasiya Shah) even at her most rebellious could ever be attracted to her as a friend and want to emulate her in any way. I don’t know if it was just regional accent issues, but more than a few people in the audience I spoke to were finding the dialogue of Anita and Meena difficult to understand clearly. For a story that is looking at British (well English) culture through fresh eyes, and the conflict between two cultures and the identity issues that this is causing a young girl, there is very little sense of that on stage. There are some interesting little indicators at times such as Meena preferring to voice her worries to “Cathy and Claire”, the agony aunts of Jackie comic rather than her parents and her rendition of “Cum on Feel The Noize” by Slade at a family party. Interesting too to see Anita’s reaction in Act II to sitting down for the first time with an Indian family and Indian food on the table.
Act II is far more of a straight dramatic work but still marred by some bad musical numbers and poor attempts at comedy. It is far darker in nature though and brings the always there in the first half but never really seen unacceptable face of racial hatred clearly to the stage, and it is against this new reality to her that Meena must make some choices in her friends and directions in her life.
One of the biggest problems of the show is that so many of the other characters and what is going on around them are more interesting for various reasons than either Anita or Meena. Even within her own family, Meena’s mother (Shobna Gulati) is far more interesting with her gentle portrayal of a woman who sees around her more than her husband of people’s perceptions of them and longs for her home and family in India. Rina Fatania as Meena’s grandmother Nanima pretty much gets to steal the whole show here…well possibly sharing it with one other person Mrs Worrall (Theresa Collins). I also wanted to know what changed Sam Lowbridge (Sam Cole) from a fairly happy go lucky teenager into a racist thug so quickly. Mrs Ormerod (Rebekah Hinds) as our sweet shop owner and church fundraiser is also interesting on many levels…outwardly so pious and charitable but under a thin veneer such unacceptable views, views so clearly given to us all in a song that even makes references to things like Enoch Powell’s infamous “rivers of blood” speech.
While there are obvious issues raised here that have direct relevance to many issues happening today, Anita and Me is a lost opportunity to bring to stage a work about cultural identity and coming of age viewed from the perspective of a young girl trying to walk a tight-rope between two very different cultures. I’ve given this performance three stars, but one is for the stage set and another is for Meena remembering the names of the firemen from Trumpton.
Review by Tom King