King’s Theatre, Edinburgh
Meera Syal really knows how to spin a yarn. I read and enjoyed Anita and Me when it was first published, back in 1996. I watched the 2002 movie adaptation too, which was okay, although more superficial than the source novel. So I am interested to see this musical stage production, which is a collaborative effort by The Touring Consortium Theatre Company and Birmingham Repertory Theatre.
And it’s a lively, energetic piece, with an animated central performance from Aasiya Shah as Meena. The story of a young British-Indian girl, coming of age in a time of overt racism, is nicely told. There is anger here – Meena’s fury at local heart-throb Sam’s bigotry and ignorance, for example, and her refusal to allow him to get away with saying “I don’t mean you; I mean those other ones” – but there is humour, sadness, and forgiveness too. Sam’s anger is misdirected, but it’s understandable. He’s at the bottom of the pile, and he’s just lashing out. Far more important is Meena’s internal struggle to come to terms with who she is and who she wants to be.
It doesn’t work as well as the novel: the brush strokes are too broad and the nuances are lost. Without Meena’s internal monologue to temper our impressions, we’re left with a lot of stock characters behaving in predictable ways, declaiming their positions in loud, stagey voices. The Black Country accents feel overdone; it all needs toning down a bit. The novel has the same naivety, but it’s more credible on the page, when it’s told from a ten-year-old’s point of view. Here, we see the adults on their own terms, not Meena’s, and they are just too exaggerated to convince. It’s a shame, because the amplification hides the heart.
Despite this, there are some lovely moments, and some strong performances. Shobna Gulati and Robert Mountford, as Meena’s parents, give the subtlest characterisations, and these are easiest to believe. Nanima is a gift of a comic role, and Rina Fatania clearly revels in it. Meena’s sung letters to agony aunts Cathy and Claire are a nifty device, allowing us some insight into how she feels. And the set is impressively detailed, with some clever scene changes incorporated.
All in all, this is an enjoyable show, with much to recommend it. But it’s not as good as the book.