Set in the heart of a mining village deep in the Black Country, Birmingham REP Theatre couldn’t be a more fitting place to host the premiere of the first stage adaptation of Meera Syal’s Anita and Me. Full to the brim with universal and touching themes of community, family, friendships and identity, Anita and Me reaches out to the masses. Yet it does so with a vibrancy and a colourful grasp of fun and joyous spirit along the way. From thought-provoking moments to laughing hysterically and clapping along to the beat, the cast of Anita and Me really do take the audience on an emotional journey of self-discovery.
We follow the story of Meena, whom, growing up in the only Punjabi family in an intensely Brummie village, struggles with realizing her identity in an environment caught between two clashing cultures, each on the brink of adjustment. The performance by Mandeep Dillon, tackling the role of Meena, is one that perfectly embodies the conflict of the young sharp-witted and feisty teenager struggling to find her place in the world where what’s right and what’s ‘cool’ are constantly obscured. Made even more arduous by Meena continually comparing and lessening herself to ‘the most popular girl in Tollington’ outspoken and rebellious Anita.
This issue of perpetual self-doubt and idealizing the British culture is thoughtfully dealt with in this performance. For most of the production Meena wears a beige jumper draped over her head symbolizing her desire to stray from her Indian heritage and possess ‘long blonde hair’ and later on she abundantly applies a shade of foundation far too light for her skin. These moments received laughter yet certainly have a serious undertone that resonate with the audience.
As well as evoking prevalent issues of anti-immigration and casual racism that will certainly pertain to an older and younger audience the show really is a comedy! What undoubtedly stands out is the dynamic and energetic musical numbers that get the whole cast involved with meticulously choreographed routines to the original music of Ben and Max Ringham. The energy and life of the play culminates through the exuberance of the music that gets everyone tapping their feet. As well as the comically timed retorts and repartee that goes on between the up-to-no-good teenagers and the locals. Especially Jalleh Alizadeh, playing vulgar Anita and Janice Connolly, playing scatty old crone Mrs Worrall who clash heads constantly to great comic effect.
Another stand-alone mention would be the truthful and heart-warming performances of Meena’s family, with Ameet Chana as Meena’s father and Ayesha Dharker as her mother. The protective and deeply nostalgic parents are worried for their daughter straying from the culture she truly belongs. The interactions and family dynamic are portrayed with such sincerity, it’s hard to believe that they aren’t a family in real life.
After the show ended and the cast members ran on for their bows I was filled with that warm and uplifting feeling that you get after seeing a performance that tackles issues close to so many people’s hearts. I’m truly thrilled that this quirky, spirited book about the 1970s was brought to life so vibrantly.
Anita and Me continues at Birmingham REP until October 24th.
Review by Zoe Head