Review: Anita and Me, Theatre Royal Stratford East

“Now here’s a little story
To tell it is a must”

One gets the feeling that had Anita and Me decided whether it wanted to be a full-blown musical or a straight play adorned by a little music, it might have been a much more successful version of Meera Syal’s novel. But as it is, Tanika Gupta’s adaptation and Roxana Silbert’s direction is marooned in a hinterland between the two, packed too full with material trying to fulfil both remits and so it can be quite the frustrating watch.

The source material is definitely there, Syal’s semi-autobiographical portrait of growing up in the West Midlands in the 1970s is full of insight and warmly old-fashioned charm. Cosseted in the vibrant home of her Punjabi parents, Meena’s teenage rebellion takes the form of throwing her lot in with neighbour Anita to help her better integrate into the society she longs to be a part of, something complicated only slightly by the ingrained racism of said society.

But though this is ostensibly the main thread of the story, this production spreads itself thinly over all manner of distracting subplots, so much so that the play is basically episodic in nature, rather than following one strand in depth. Not always a problem in itself but here, it somewhat minimises both Meena and Anita, both characters needing more depth and exploration to give more weight to the issues dealt with. As it is, domestic violence and virulent racism get off fairly lightly.

That said, the performances are lovely. Mandeep Dillon leads the cast as the sympathetic if stroppy Meena, Ayesha Dharker and Ameet Chana offer sterling support as her parents and there’s bright work from the ever-likeable Amy Booth-Steel (who gets the show’s strongest – and most overtly musical theatre – song) and Janice Connolly as a kindly neighbour. Ben and Max Ringham’s songs are entertaining enough but it’s hard not to want more Anita and me from Anita and Me.

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes (with interval)
Photo: Pip Gill

Booking until 21st November

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