October 19 2015
Review of a much anticipated play which is playing in Birmingham before it comes to London next…
By Khakan Qureshi
I’VE READ the novel, seen the film and have now managed to watch the stage show. The only thing that’s missing is the T-shirt…
The World Premiere of “Anita And Me”, an autobiographical novel by critically acclaimed author, writer, actress and comedian Meera Syal has been adapted for a stage play by award-winning playwright, Tanika Gupta for Birmingham Repertory Theatre.
The very talented Mandeep Dhillon (from BBC3 series “Some Girls”) plays Meena Kumar, a 12-year-old Indian girl, who lives with her family in the predominantly white, working-class, fictional mining village of Tollington in the Black Country in 1972 and the play, as does the book, explores her developing friendship with Anita (Jalleh Alizadeh), a white, 14-year-old girl whom Meena comes to idolise.
As a child of the 1970s myself, born and bred in Birmingham, I felt I was transported back in time and could easily recognise what made up the stage set – six back to back Victorian terraced houses, a washing line outside the back door, several tyres and a ripped car seat.
It appeared warm, homely and provoked an era of days gone by, when communities appeared to be more close knit and ready to help others when the need arose.
Stevie Wonder, T Rex and Slade played in the background, which created just the right amount of mood and ambience of the time.
The opening scene, led by Meena consisted of an original song, which immediately informed the audience that the music would be there to carry the story rather than used as a Bollywood style ‘song and dance’ routine.
For the Xbox generation, to see props such as Yo-yo’s, chopper bicycles and ‘Jackie’ magazine, would appear very tame and out-dated but it helped to convey the period and demonstrate how much joy these small items would bring to so many children, for hours on end.
The first half of this play is light-hearted, the humour contained and references made which appeared to have some relevance to today.
For example, one of the characters, a young hippy called Ned played by Tarek Merchant, states how very fashionable beards are for the time (!) and a T-shirt which is supposed to represent the objections to a new motorway (HS2 anyone?) is emblazoned with the acronym T.I.T, meaning “Tollington in Trouble”.
It’s these touches of social references that really make the audience laugh.
The gospel influenced song “Save the Heathen Soul” is a crowd pleaser and the Quiet Riot song “Hear the Noise” is given a tabla inspired makeover, which really fuses the East meets West cultures.
One of the funnier scenes is when Anita is describing how an unseen character is using a colostomy bag, except it wasn’t described as such but as a “broken bum” instead.
Birmingham’s own Janice Connolly was a comedic genius with her one liners, observations and dialect as the elderly Mrs Worrall.
Although the story is based on the developing friendship between the two young girls, there is an undercurrent of racism and prejudice through the play. Words which were very much in common use back then were used to highlight how things were then.
Some even drew a gasp or two from the audience. There was an element that we (as a minority) accepted this and, we acknowledged how different people spoke or treated us, but it was not something many drew attention to or resisted actively.
The older generation appeared to shrug it off and got on with their lives because they didn’t want to be seen as “trouble makers”. Today, the use of those very same words would create tension, friction, race wars and possible litigation.
In Act Two, the storyline delved into the burgeoning prejudices of the characters and depicted the changing socio-political viewpoints. The humour seemed to have lessened and the racism was more apparent.
Joseph Drake as Sam (Anita’s new boyfriend) chillingly changes from admiring Meena as quite an ‘exotic’ young girl to developing stronger negative attitudes towards those ‘foreigners’.
Sam represents the more aggressive side of racism which was rising at the time with bovver boys, skin heads and DM boots.
This was balanced out by the opinions expressed by Mrs Worrall, who although she was the eldest character, appeared to be the more liberal and accepting of the differences.
As the scenes unfolded, I immediately felt I had a strong connection to the themes and issues raised, not least because I became quite nostalgic, but also because Meera and Tanika had captured the realism of the day.
The broad Black Country accents, the repartee, the different family dynamics and how people appeared to be more robust and ‘got on with their lives’ regardless of the issues raised were all elements easy to recognise.
As British Asians, most of us may be able to relate to the ‘identity crisis’ Meena experiences. From her reluctance to respect her Nannyji, which represented a rejection of her Indian ancestry and culture, to her assertion to have her young voice heard, leading to an eventual acceptance and pride in her dual identity.
This production is full of charming wit, references a period in time which was very un-PC, had the audience enthralled and delivered rapturous applause at the end.
ACV star rating:**** (out of five)
Main picture above: Meera (Mandeep Dhillon) and Anita (Jalleh Alizadeh)
All pictures: Ellie Kurttz
Our correspondent saw the show on Tuesday last week (October 12)
- Interviews with Tanika Gupta and Roxana Silbert (director) – http://asianculturevulture.com/portfolios/anita-me-a-girls-own-story/
‘Anita And Me’ runs until Saturday (October 24) at the Birmingham The Birmingham Repertory Theatre, Centenary Square, Broad Street, Birmingham B1 2EP
Info: booking (remaining from £13.50) http://www.birmingham-rep.co.uk/event/anita-and-me/
‘Anita and Me’ from October 29-November 21 at Theatre Royal, Stratford East, Gerry Raffles Square, Stratford, London E15 1BN – 7.30pm and matinees (check days and times below, from £7)