It’s not often that a play is so riddled with Black Country patois that you need surtitles.
Anita And Me,Meera Syal’s affectionate look at life for the only Punjabi family in a down-at-heel Midlands mining village, is a delight to listen to with its spot-on accents. Yown seems to be the popular idiom with the English vocabulary truncated into a language all of its own.
Quite what an East London audience at the Theatre Royal Stratford East make of this Birmingham Rep visitor is anyone’s guess but I loved it.
For 13-year-old Meena Kumar life is complicated. Here is a story that ticks almost all the boxes. Fish out of water, coming of age, rights of passage, culture clash and racism.
Throw in a bit of Morris dancing, Asian Slade and an uplifting and glittering Bollywood moment and you’ve just about got it covered.
Anita and Me is incredibly un-PC. The language, so typical of the 1970s, and a lot said not in malice but through ignorance and naivety, could never be written by a white playwright without causing a national outcry.
But it’s taken as comedy because it’s written by an Asian dramatist. Is this fair or right or, in itself, inherently racist? We’re laughing but I’m feeling guilty about doing it.
One particularly memorable joke concerned the naming of a dog. It’s called Nigger but its young owner had wanted to call it Sambo. Cue huge laughs. Only Syal could get away writing that.
The Kumar family, from India, have settled in a village on the outskirts of Wolverhampton. The houses are terraced, the neighbourhood ruled by its doughty women, and its kids all go to the local school.
The community welcomes their new neighbours even though they frequently put their foot in it when talking to, and about, them.
But young daughter, Meena, is very westernised. She’s growing up with a strong Midlands accent, a love of pop music, reading Jackie, and nicking money from her mum’s purse to buy sweets.
She wears a jumper on her head to fulfil her dreams of having blonde hair and is horrified that her mother wants her to wear a garish yellow party frock to meet relatives (and, looking at it, I don’t blame her).
She’s also desperate to fit in and is determined to become best friends with the area’s most popular girl, Anita.
But she’s popular for all the wrong reasons. She’s “the wrong sort”, a bad ‘un, a young tearaway. This being a bit of an urban fairy story we soon discover that it’s not her fault.
Her mum is the neighbourhood bike, her dad is a violent drunk and she is left to drag herself up. For all her swagger and bravado she’s just a messed up kid looking for love in all the wrong places.
There’s a second story about change, progress, and the advance of a new motorway, but really Anita And Me is a charming story of how a young girl – a lot like Meera Syal – finds her own identity and pursues her ambitions – without any help from the Jackie agony aunts that she’s always writing to.
Tanika Gupta’s sympathetic adaptation has enhanced Syal’s story and includes musical numbers although they are largely unnecessary – with the exception of a bustin’ Bolly version of Slade’s Cum On Feel The Noize.
Yes, it’s a bit syrupy in places, but you find yourself smiling at the naive Meena’s antics, loving her amiable father (Ameet Chaana who is a bit of a goer on the Bollywood dance floor, given half the chance), and enjoying the wit and wisdom of granny Nanima (Yasmin Wilde).
One of the most touching moments was when young Anita (brilliantly played by Jalleh Alizadeh) is invited for her first Indian meal at the Kumars.
Brought up on a diet of fish-fingers and chip or bags of crisps it was heart-rending to see her bafflement at learning what garlic was or that you could cook chicken with onions and tomatoes.
But it’s Mandeep Dhillon’s endearing portrayal of the wide-eyed Meena that melts your heart. She occasionally plays the teen as a little too immature, often coming across as a much younger child, but she has had a closeted traditional upbringing.
I have a sneaky suspicion Meera and I are probably about the same age. I think I had those self same pictures of David Cassidy (swoon), torn out of Jackie, on my wall and here they are gracing the set (ah, memories).
Kiren Jogi’s performance as “Auntie” Shaila was brilliantly comical. Shaila nags and cajoles, and at one point puts her long suffering husband in hospital with her cooking. It’s all delightfully eccentric.
Anita And Me is warm and witty, a snapshot from the life of a child that features wonderful memories and moments tinged with sadness and regret.
The ugliness of racism never impinges on the sheer joyousness of this vibrant tale although the backlash to immigration is still with us today.
Running at the Theatre Royal Stratford East until November 21.
Anita And Me
Vibrant, warm-hearted and affectionate. Meera Syal’s semi-autobiographical Anita And Me looks at 1970s life through an innocent teen’s eyes.