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Anita and Me review at Birmingham Repertory Theatre – ‘endearingly old fashioned’

Mandeep Dhillon and Jalleh Alizadeh in Anita and Me at Birmingham Repertory Theatre. Photo: Ellie Kurttz Mandeep Dhillon and Jalleh Alizadeh in Anita and Me at Birmingham Repertory Theatre. Photo: Ellie Kurttz

Though Tanika Gupta’s stage adaptation of Meera Syal’s popular, semi-autobiographical novel about growing up in the Black Country in the 1970s is determinedly, almost defiantly, old fashioned in tone, it is also quite endearing, at least once it warms up.

It tells the story of 12-year-old Meena’s friendship with Anita, a white girl from a rough family. While the writing and character development is pretty broad, and there’s an almost cartoonish quality to the evocation of the era – all Slade and flares and unfortunate facial hair – Roxana Silbert’s production gradually begins to build an intriguing picture of racially mixed West Country neighbourhood, depicting the tensions, the almost unthinking racism, as well as the affection and support which existed in this strongly matriarchal world, the sense of community.

One of the main issues with the production is that it never feels entirely sure whether it wants to be an all-out musical or not. There are songs, composed by the Ringham brothers, but they aren’t hugely memorable and it often feels as if Silbert’s production is straining to fill the large auditorium. A lot of the performances, almost as a result, are quite big and one-note. It’s down to Ayesha Dharker and Ameet Chana, as Meena’s parents, to really ground things and give the production some emotional weight; Meena, and particularly Anita, feel a lot less developed in comparison, and Gupta tries to cram in an awful lot of plot, which doesn’t help. But, for all its problems, this show has a sizeable heart.

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An almost endearingly old-fashioned musical adaptation of Meera Syal’s popular novel