I really have a thing for stories that are influenced by Indian culture; movies and stage shows like Bend It Like Beckham, Bombay Dreams and Bride and Prejudice are fantastic in my eyes and the energy that they exude is incredibly infectious. I felt the same way when I went and saw Anita and Me at the Theatre Royal Stratford East on November 4th: I found the story both informative and thought provoking, the general production values beautiful and imaginative, and the cast members inviting and warming to watch.
The show takes inspiration from Meera Syal's novel of the same name and the 2002 film adaptation of that novel. It's a story that follows a young girl called Meena and her family as they get to grips with the changing times in the West Midlands in the 1970's with a wonderful new book written by Tanika Gupta and stunning original music composed by Ben and Max Ringham.
The show isn't just a play, it's a play with music and it was interesting to see a play that uses music to take it on with such a musical theatre inspired flare - the show is given an opening and a closing number that essentially start up and conclude the story, but the rest of the music is used to either signify Meena's inner thoughts, or because the characters are literally singing songs in the plot. It really is the story of Meera Syal's childhood; she shares the fact that she's elated to see her story come to life on stage in a press release: "[Theatre Royal Stratford East] is a theatre that I have worked closely with in the early stages of my career and an area of London where I also spent many years living. It will be nostalgic to see my childhood story played out on stage there and I'm thrilled that London audiences will get to witness what life was like for a young Punjabi girl growing up in the West Midlands".
The cast are so convincing in their portrayals and that's what really sold this show to me as something with great promise. Ayesha Dharker as Meena's mother Daljit really sold the show for me, and why wouldn't it when she has credits as massive as leading the original West End and Broadway companies of Bombay Dreams? It's nice to see such a big name take on such a role and perform it with true grace and flair, even more so because Ayesha was a part of the movie cast. Ameet Chana as Meena's father Shyam was also really enjoyable to watch with his fantastically charming and comedic presence lifting up the play's sometimes more emotional and mood-killing moments - necessary moments don't get me wrong, but killers of a happy mood nonetheless. Mandeep Dhillon also deserves praises for her performance as Meena with her very sweet and candid portrayal of such a young teen that was both convincing and delightful to watch.
I don't quite know if the story would be what it was without the incredibly staging, either. Think about the setting of Blood Brothers when they focus on the street where they live and then imagine what they could do if that was the fixed set... It was exactly that and was extremely impressive on such a small stage in such a small off-West End venue.
As for the coming-of-age tale of Meena herself, I found it easy to follow but struggled to comprehend why so much really had to happen. I didn't sit there feeling like I was waiting for the end to come around which was a fantastic thing, but I did tend to sit there wondering what on Earth happened to Anita's mother after they introduced that bombshell of a storyline and also how on Earth all the other children's lives trailed off. It really felt like the three act movie that it once was being squished into two acts and some continuity being lost.
Even so, my friend Chaya who I took with me told me that she found the story incredibly accurate to her life as a teenage Indian girl growing up in a British society and found some moments genuinely hilarious because they were identical to her family lifestyle.
I still haven't sat down to watch the film and nor have I read the book yet, but Anita and Me was still a thoroughly enjoyable production even without the incarnations of the story that have come before it. While it will clearly need some work before it continues its life any further than Stratford (I recommend turning it into a full-blown musical because it has the capacity to be amazing like that), it's still a promising, heart-warming and delightful evening from start to finish.
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