Watching the stage production of Anita and Me in 2017 is an uncanny experience. Meera Syal’s book, on which it is based, was written in 1996, and the film adaptation with Chandeep Uppal and Anna Brewster came out a full fifteen years ago now, in 2002. (Doesn’t that make you feel old?) The conversations it touches on are as topical today as they were in 1996 – possibly even more so, given current events – and yet somehow the discussion it’s having seems to be two decades old.
To start with the best bits – it’s a beautiful, brightly coloured production. Psychedelic 1970s lighting fits with that feeling of slight unreality: this is clearly a story from somebody’s childhood, to get swept up in. Aasiya Shah is easy to warm to as main character Meena, and probably the most compelling parts of Anita and Me focus on her relationship with her (decidedly photogenic) parents, sensitively played by Shobna Gulati and Robert Mountford. The titular Anita gets less of a look in plot-wise, and it’s sometimes difficult to get the logic of her friendship with Meena.
The thing is that is not quite sure what it wants to be. On the one hand, it’s a fun family comedy with frequent musical elements, good situational comedy, and the occasional gross-out joke for those among us who like that sort of thing. On the other hand, a commentary on the racism faced by Indian Hindu immigrants in a declining rural community. Bridging the gap somewhat, the two grandmothers –Rina Fatania as the show-stealing Nanima, and Therese Collins as Mrs Worrall – add the strongest elements of a story that underlines the importance of close-knit family and community in a changing world. But the frequent switch from one tone to the other means that neither gets quite the depth it deserves.
The result is that the comedy sometimes feels gratuitous, the emotional currents sometimes feel underplayed, and the political discussion fails to pack the punch it might have. In a climate where identity politics is such a hot topic for discussion, it feels as if Anita and Me is dances around it, offering talking points that might have been eye-openers when Syal first wrote the book, but which seem to make no nod to the way how we talk about race has changed since then. To be clear – there is definitely space for the story of a young second-generation immigrant, trying to fit in in the rural West Midlands in the 1970s. That could even very well be this story. But an audience in 2017 can stand to be challenged a bit more.
Anita and Me runs at the King’s Theatre until Saturday 1st April.