anita head

anita and Meena

Meena, played by Mandeep Dhillon and Anita played by Jalleh Alizadeh. Pictures: Ellie Kurttz.

Anita and Me

Birmingham Rep

****

NO matter the colour, creed, culture or race there is one universal truth, one right of passage everyone has to go through – the coming of age.

And for Sikh youngster Meena it comes growing up in 1972 in the fictional former slate mining village of Tollington, somewhere in the Black Country on the way to Wolverhampton

Her family are the only Sikhs and the only Punjabis in the village, they are the them, if it comes down to them and us . . . as we know it surely will.Meena and Mrs Worrall

With little work, little money and a life set in terraced cottages built for miners who, like the mine are long gone, the future is hardly rosy for those breaking up for school holidays as our story starts.

Mandeep Dhillon as Meena and Janice Connolly as her neighbourly friend Mrs Worrall

I must admit I have never read Wolverhampton-born Meera Syal’s novel, nor seen the film, so the play, adapted by Tanika Gupta, had to stand on its own two acts and in that it succeeded admirably in it’s world premiere. This is another quality production from Birmingham Rep, this time in conjunction with Theatre Royal Stratford East.

Mandeep Dhillon does a brilliant job playing Meena, a girl half her age, injecting innocence, enthusiasm, rebellion and uncertainty into the life of a girl just starting on the road from childhood to womanhood.

Meena, might be the only Sikh in the village, but she is just the same as everyone else with the same friends and the same passions, the same interests such as Jackie with its agony aunts Cathy and Claire – not that I read that either –  even down to the top selling edition in 1972 with the David Cassidy poster.

The problem she has is the clash of cultures within her own family with father Shyam, played by Ameet Chana and sari-wearing mother Daljit played by Ayesha Dharker embracing both cultures with close ties to friends and family in and from India and friends in Tollington.

We meet Meena’s grandmother, Nanima, played by Yasmin Wide, who comes over to help when Daljit is struggling to cope with her new born son. There are also visits from Uncle Amman, played by Chris Nayak, and Auntie Shaila, played by Kiren Jogi, along with their two daughters, visits which demand dressing up in brightly coloured dresses which make the sort of fashion statement Meena would prefer to avoid making, particularly to Anita.

Anita, is the eponymous character, two years older than Meena and the village bad girl who is fast heading towards becoming the village good time girl, a position currently held, mainly horizontally it seems, by her mother, Deidre, played by Amy Booth-Steel.

Jalleh Alizadeh gives us a precociously sexy, rebellious, arrogant Anita, with a hint of sadness and insecurity beneath the hardened surface. The product of a broken home devoid of affections she is the leader of the girls, idolised by Meena until she starts to see who Anita really is.

Leader of the boys is Sam, good looking, cool, Tollington’s own rebel without a cause, and a babe magnet – or at least appealing tMeenao Anita’s baser instincts - when he gets his motorbike.

Joseph Drake makes Sam a most unpleasant character, racist, fascist, white supremacist, you name it and he is probably it athough there is a hint that perhaps he has been created rather than born, the product of a perfect storm of failed education, no jobs, no prospects and no future, like the village he is living in.

Mandeep Dhillon as Meena finding out that growing up is not the easiest journey

When another Punjabi, Mr Bhatra, from the planning department comes along to explain the village school will be demolished and how a new motorway will link the village to Wolverhampton local shopkeeper Mrs Ormorod, Amy Booth-Steel again, a Christian who thinks sending Bilbles to heathens- i.e. non-whites in Africa –  is the only aid needed, leads the opposition but even she is outshone by Sam, who goes full National Front, accusing immigrants of taking jobs and opportunities expressed in a more colourful way of course. The real sea change in Meena’s life comes after Sam ambushes Mr Bhatra and savagely beats him up.

Anita joins in the “Paki-bashing” and delights in telling Meena about it, never grasping that you can’t just be racist about “the others”.

There is an irony when her younger sister Tracey, played by Megan McCormick, is saved from drowning by Meena’s father, presumably one of “the others”.

There is plenty of humour and humanity in the play particularly from Janice Connolly as Mrs Worrall, friend to Meena and her family, supplier of jam tarts, and general community rock. Years of stand-up as Barbara Nice, Stockport housewife superstar mum of five, have honed her timing to perfection, polishing each laugh to a shine.

Anita and Me also has plenty of music with would be pop star Ned, played by Tarek Merchant, who is also musical director by the way, on keyboards.

Bob Bailey’s set of neat terraced cottages works well with clever swivelling walls to create the inside of Meena’s house and finally the dereliction of the terrace at the end as the houses are cleared in the “modernisation” of the village.

Director Roxana Silbert, the Rep’s artistic director incidentally, avoids sentimentality. There is no moralising or preaching. We just see the village as it was 40 years ago, and sadly that is not too far from today.

She has kept things moving along, with flowing scene changes and, most important, tells Meena’s story, her tale of Anita and Me, simply and effectively in an entertaining way. To 24-10-15

Roger Clarke

13-10-15 

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