Review: Meera Syal’s Autobiographical Musical Anita And Me

Anita And Me, Theatre Royal Stratford East ★★★★☆

By Stuart Black Last edited 40 months ago
Review: Meera Syal’s Autobiographical Musical Anita And Me Anita And Me, Theatre Royal Stratford East 4
Mandeep Dhillon and Jalleh Alizadeh. Photo by Ellie Kurttz.

Set in the Midlands in 1972, this charming musical tells a little bit of the life story of comedian-turned-writer Meera Syal. The narrative here revolves around the fragile friendship between two British-born teenagers: Meena, who’s struggling to be the “good Indian girl” her family want her to be, and Anita, the blonde bombshell next-door whose home is decidedly broken.

It’s a bit sitcomy perhaps and hard not to compare to the superior and harder-edged East Is East, but it’s an undeniably warm and funny show, with rich characters and a setting that feels properly lived in. You might expect as much since it’s based on reality and also follows on from the 1996 novel-memoir and 2002 film (in which, slightly weirdly, Syal’s husband Sanjeev Bhaskar plays her father). This new musical, well let’s call it a play with songs, has also had a successful Birmingham run before arriving in Stratford.

Yet to it's credit, it’s not too polished or cheesy, and maintains a sense of Syal recounting hazily-remembered vignettes about farting grandmas and sneaking off to the fairground and innocently watching Top Of The Pops (before it was destroyed by paedogeddon). These fragments flow into and interrupt each other, the way memories do, which only adds to the ragtag charm.

In the second half it does try to gather itself into more of a plot — there's some stuff about a school being bulldozed and the rise of the local skinheads — but in truth it’s far better when it's ambling along with no particular place to go. Very possibly, the superb central performance by Mandeep Dhillon is the reason why. She has an extraordinarily charismatic singing voice, even when she’s putting on a stroppy teenager’s voice or singing in bumpkin Brummy. With scuffed knees and a cardigan over her head Dhillon is the beating heart of the show — and one to watch out for in future.

The rest of the cast bring a vivacious energy — one scene involves a Bhangra version of My Old Man’s A Dustman, another sees a Morris dance weaving through the backstreets. Ultimately though, we would have liked to see the supporting characters given more solos: Meena’s parents feel a bit neglected and Anita herself (played with sass by Jalleh Alizadeh) remains just a bit too much of an enigma.

It’s nimbly directed by Roxanna Silbert with clever design by Bob Bailey, and with the scrappy songs by Ben and Max Ringham are a relief (for those who dread those big Broadway numbers), so all in all it pretty much adds up to a bustin’ night out.

Anita And Me runs at Theatre Royal Stratford East until 21 November. Tickets £7-23.50 Londonist saw this show on a complimentary ticket.

Meera Syal will also be hosting Empower House, a poetry night on 9 November.

Last Updated 06 November 2015