Stage show doesn’t live up to the book

Anita and Me
Anita and Me
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Anita and Me, Blackpool Grand Theatre

Pleasing performances, touching themes and an incredible stage set - but this ambitious adaptation of ‘Anita and Me’ at Blackpool’s Grand Theatre can’t live up to the original novel’s enduring charm.

The play follows the story of Meena Kumar, a 13-year-old girl growing up in the fictional Black Country village of Tollington in the 1970s with her best friend, ‘bad girl’ Anita Rutter.

As a book (written by Meera Syal in 1996), Anita and Me is a marvel. Funny, sad and poignant, it won the Betty Trask Award for its portrayal of a young girl who feels like an outsider, separated from her Indian heritage and yet never fully accepted by her white British neighbours.

And while the play captures Meena’s struggle between playing the good daughter for her traditional parents and running wild with her white, working class pals, there’s the lingering impression that the adaptation never quite hits its stride.

Shobna Gulati and Robert Mountford give pleasing performances as Meena’s parents, Daljit and Shyam, and Sejal Keshwala is entertaining as Meena’s stuck-up, eccentric aunt.

But it’s Rina Fatania who is the real star as she plays Nanima, Meena’s grandmother. Her performance is comedic yet sad, with her final touching monologue about how she enjoyed a life of wealth in India before losing everything, including her husband, to the British being one of the highlights of the show.

Letting down the team is lead actress Aasiya Shah, who has little professional acting experience - and it shows. Her performance is clownish; she jerks about the stage constantly like she’s being poked in the behind with a cattle prod, and by her third ‘Dear Cathy and Claire’ monologue (which she sings, badly) I wanted to duct tape her mouth shut.

And while one feels compelled to sympathise with Anita (played by Laura Aramayo) as her mother ditches her to run off with the butcher, I spend far more time wishing Meena would slap her silly.

The songs are forgettable and the whole thing feels fragmented, perhaps highlighting the difficulties behind condensing a 250-page book into a two-hour play.

If you’re a big musical theatre fan, or, like me, loved the book and are curious to see how it has been adapted for the stage, ‘Anita and Me’ could prove to be an entertaining watch.

If not, you’ll have a far more enjoyable experience curled up on the sofa with a good cup of tea and Meera Syal’s original novel open on your lap.

Wes Holmes