Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Anita and Me

King's Theatre, Edinburgh
Neil Cooper
Three stars

When a shaven-headed teenage boy wearing braces starts ranting about how foreigners are coming over here and stealing all our jobs, the ignorant fury of such a statement mid-way through Tanika Gupta's stage version of Meera Syal's 1996 novel, sounds chillingly of the moment. Such is the knee-jerk response of Little England to disenfranchisement and difference, it seems, whatever decade we're in.

Up until that point, thirteen year old Meena has led a noisy if fairly sheltered life growing up amidst the bustle of her Indian family in the red-brick Midlands mining village of Tollington. Slade are on the radio, and boys are the imaginary stuff of the letters she sends in song to teenage agony aunts Cathy and Claire in Jackie magazine. If only she could be blonde like her wild child pal Anita, then she wouldn't have to wrap her cardigan around her head as if it were a wig.

On one level this sounds as much a comic back-street rites of passage as the likes of Caitlin and Caroline Moran's sit-com Raised by Wolves, with which Syall's story is a kind of spiritual sister. Throw in the Anglo-Indian experience of growing up in a still-retrenched post-war Britain, and it becomes something else again.

Originally presented by Birmingham Rep in 2015 before transferring to Theatre Royal Stratford East, Roxana Silbert's production is a bright and brash affair with considerable charm. This is especially true of Aasiya Shah's infectiously engaging performance as a wide-eyed Meena, who eventually stands up to Laura Aramayo's Anita. It may be a story about friendship, but as the finale's mash-up of Morris dancing and Bollywood shows, it's also about the power of community to celebrate our differences.

The Herald, March 30th 2017

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