Anita and Me (Birmingham Rep)
Meera Syal's semi-autobiographical novel is adapted for the stage by Tanika Gupta
Meera Syal's semi-autobiographical novel about growing up as an Indian girl in the Black Country has been adapted for the Birmingham Rep, giving an appropriate opportunity to hear some (semi)-local accents on the main stage of this regional powerhouse of producing theatre.
Playwright Tanika Gupta grapples with the task of giving voice to the competing characters, from first-generation Punjabi immigrants to young, disaffected Midland skinheads, and on the whole succeeds in painting a vivid portrait of life for a mixed-up kid in 1972.
Director Roxana Silbert concentrates on the clash of cultures and is well served by her large cast, supplemented by throngs of community players to help fill the cavernous Rep stage. But there are significant problems in the adaptation that ultimately confuse and confound it, amiable and well-intentioned though it clearly is.
Chief among these is the question of tone. When the cast arrive on stage, singing an unfortunately unmemorable opening number, it looks like this is going to be a musical. By the second act, that plan appears to have been abandoned in favour of a darker exploration of suburban racism, interspersed by occasional instrumental moments. Even this, though, proves unsatisfactory as the opposing arguments are portrayed in leaden, simplistic speeches in the mouths of cartoonish caricatures.
The cast work hard with what they're given. The strongest performances come from the more mature players, in particular Ayesha Dharker and Ameet Chana as the parents trying to bring up their reluctant daughter Meena the old-fashioned, Indian way. There are a couple of excellent turns, too, from Janice Connolly as comedy neighbour Mrs Worrall and Yasmin Wilde as the lovable nanna who flies in from the subcontinent to remind Meena of the importance of her heritage.
Bob Bailey's set design and costumes work well, with an authentic 70s feel, but the normally reliable sound designers Ben and Max Ringham show just how difficult writing songs for the stage really is, providing some rather clunky, unimaginative numbers that add little to the mix.
It's affable, harmless stuff for the most part - although casual racism for a cheap laugh is surely passé these days, even for ethnic writers? - and the press night audience welcomed it all enthusiastically enough. But I suspect it's unlikely to go down in the annals as one of the great social commentaries on the immigrant experience in Britain.
Anita and Me continues at the Birmingham Rep until 24 October, then transfers to the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, from 29 October to 21 November.