Review: Anita and Me @ Birmingham Rep

I couldn’t make the first night of this dramatisation of Meera Syal’s much-loved autobiographical novel about growing up in a 1970s Black Country village, but I caught the last night and can truly say that it’s a feel-good hit.

It’s 1972, and Meena is the teenage daughter of a newly arrived Indian family trying to survive in a white working class enclave of midlands back to backs. Her Indian childhood’s no preparation for the Black Country, and Meena faces one huge, unspoken question – is she Indian, or English? The community they find themselves in has its own problems of poverty, ignorance and child neglect and unsettlingly for Meena the past is quickly replaced as everything new becomes the norm.

Soon she’s at the local school like her English friend Anita and dreaming young girl’s dreams, but poignantly her main guide to survival is Cathy and Claire’s problem page in Jackie magazine. The social and sexual challenges to her sheltered upbringing are sketched in with a deceptively light hand while the political insecurities of social change foster white recruitment to an aggressive National Front.

If a rosy haze sometimes seems to mask the uneasy culture clashes of the era, nostalgia for a lost childhood can excuse it, aided by some bostin’ tunes. Because this is a feel-good show, awash with laughter, singing and dancing. Add in Bob Bailey’s ingenious sets that turn a terrace into a warehouse-lined canal and director Roxana Silbert’s endlessly inventive stage craft that can make an alleyway into an al fresco dining room and it just shouts period charm.

Yet a tragic sting in the tale ensures this sensitive production isn’t all rose-tinted nostalgia.

In a large cast Mandeep Dhillon soars as the sensitive Meena, while Jalleh Alizadeh is sublime as her salt of the earth friend Anita. A superb presentation of a story (now a GCSE set text) which revisits a past already slipping into history.

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