REVIEW: Anita and Me (Theatre Royal Stratford East)

‘Anita and Me’ is a highly enjoyable piece of theatre, which brings to life Meera Syal’s 1996 semi- autobiographical novel. It centres around a young Punjabi girl, Meena, who is growing up in a mining village in the 1970s. Meena’s family is the only Punjabi family in the village, and the play depicts a real clash of cultures which Meena struggles to navigate. On the one hand she wants to be a ‘good little Indian girl’ and live a more traditional Punjabi life, but on the other she wants to be ‘cool’ like the unruly Anita and is ultimately led astray by her.

The play has a lot of light-hearted comedy to offer, and there are a lot of jokes centred around stereotypes and general ignorance of different cultures. Personally, there was perhaps one too many of these jokes for me – but the comments are probably an accurate reflection of life in the 1970s so overall it was still interesting.

As well as comedy, there are also darker moments where we are reminded of the violence that can happen when different cultures and people are not just misunderstood, but hated and discriminated against. ‘Anita and Me’ is a clever play though, in that it tells not just Meena’s story, but also the stories of many around her. The more we learn about Anita, for example, the more we realise why she is so rebellious. And when she later gets involved in attacking a Punjabi man, we see that actually she is perhaps caught up in a cycle of violence herself.

There are a lot of great things to be said about this production. The set is very impressive and huge revolving flats are use to create the neighbourhood, the inside of Meena’s family home, and a scene by a river. The music was also fun and well-composed. Of particular enjoyment were the cheeky English/Punjabi remixes – which formed a genre of music I would love to hear more of!

Mandeep Dhillon, playing Meena, really stood out to me in this production. She gave a fantastic performance, and I thoroughly enjoyed watching her. I very much enjoyed this show, although I wouldn’t say it highlights any issues that are not widely known about already nowadays. However, as writer Meera Syal states, whilst a lot has changed since she was a young Punjabi girl growing up in England, many things still haven’t. Different cultures are now welcomed and integrated into British society, but at the same time we still see resistance to change and prejudice. And in a time where immigration continues to cause heated debate, it is always good to be reminded of the different perspectives and stories we all have to tell.

Reviewed by Rachel Callaghan @WIAAProductions
Photo: Ellie Kurttz