Meera Syal’s Anita and Me continues to be vividly relevant to politics today. When she first published the novel in 1996, Syal was reflecting on the experience of growing up in the 1970s as a second-generation immigrant in an isolated Midlands village. The book was then adapted for film in 2002, the same year that the British National Party won three council seats. It seems only fitting that the stage adaptation now comes to King’s Theatre amidst a climate of uncertainty about migrant rights and national identity.
The writer Tanika Gupta pointedly teases out the parallels between the time that Syal and Anita grew up and modern society. The micro-aggressions are the same – of a nice day, Anita’s father is told that it will finally be “sunny enough” for him. Anita is told that she is “not like the others”. We hear the familiar war cry of the far-right, that immigrants are “coming here and taking our jobs”. Gupta keeps the play entirely relatable by parroting what we read in the papers every day.
Yet Gupta is quick to stress that Anita and Me is first and foremost a coming-of-age story, which the actors assert with stellar performances. Aasiya Shah makes a wonderful Meena, embodying the youthful but kooky jaunt of a young girl not comfortable in her own skin, but still eager to “be cool”. Rina Fatania too is endlessly entertaining as Nanima. She is loud, colourful, and inappropriate, but also comforting with sage advice for her granddaughter. Her speech before her departure makes for a sobering break in the action, giving important context about colonial India to the fun onstage.
Music is central to telling the story, as is only right for a plot set in the seventies. Gupta and the director Roxana Silbert have called Anita and Me a “play with music” rather than a musical, and the soundtrack to the performance does feel as natural as switching on the radio. The choice of music, a mixture of traditional Indian songs and seventies classics like ‘Young, Gifted, and Black’, give an insight into the conflicting identities that Anita tries to manage. They also show things that we all share – a communal appreciation for music through family, friendship, dance, and celebration. The final song shows multiculturalism at its best. We are treated to a combination of Bollywood music, morris dancer handkerchiefs, and pop dance moves. It is a joyful tribute to the heart of Syal’s novel, a celebration of people coming together and enjoying their differences.