dpm is a Birmingham-based freelancer with experience of arts and lifestyle features.
When Meena wants to be Anita it can only cause trouble
Meera Syal's autobiographical tale of growing up in a mining village in the Black Country in the 1970s is brought to life in this new stage adaptation at Birmingham Repertory Theatre.
Adapted by Tanika Gupta, it keeps many of the elements of Syal's best-selling novel but pares down much of the action so that it focuses on the relationships between its key characters.
Central to the story is the somewhat unlikely friendship between Meena, the only daughter of the only Punjabi family in Tollington and her neighbour Anita. The two are poles apart. Meena has a loving family who are keen for her to further her education and become a professional. Anita's family is riven with domestic violence, neglect and betrayal.
Mandeep Dhillon as Anita and Jalleh Alizadeh as Anita
And yet Meena worships Anita who is all she wants to be – cool, feisty and independent.
Director Roxana Silbert ensures we see the pathos in this relationship so that we have sympathy with both girls as they struggle with their families and their fates. Their vulnerability is stressed not just by their inter-dependence but is also underlined by Meena's monologues when she writes to Jackie magazine with her dilemmas.
The production brings the turn of the sixties into the seventies very much to life with plenty of cultural references from music to Enoch Powell. There is a strong sense that change is in the air which is highlighted by the changes taking place in Tollington as the drama unfolds.
In some ways it's the casual racism which is more shocking than the violence of the skinheads. The use of the phrase 'other' sums up the divide between the different groups who in appearances make up the village community.
Much of Meena's desperation to be like Anita is her own desire to fit into a society which views her as 'different' because her family wear saris and eat cheese and peas in their curries.
Bob Bailey's set is highly evocative of this village life with a series of terrace houses overlooking a shared yard area where all the neighbours congregate to gossip about each other.
Spoken in strong Black Country accents, at times the dialogue can be difficult to follow and at others it sounds a little stilted so that some of the conversations have an awkwardness to them.
Created by Birmingham Rep in association with Theatre Roual Stratford East, the production also breaks out into song at occasional moments which feels a bit incongruous. Neither quite a musical nor a drama, the production sits a little uneasily between the two.
Mandeep Dhillon as Anita and Janice Connolly as Mrs Worrall
There are some spirited performances from Mandeep Dhillon as Meena and Jalleh Alizadeh as Anita while Birmingham favourite Janice Connolly is heart-warming as the affectionate but fussy neighbour Mrs Worrall.
The production is a brave attempt at a popular coming-of-age story whose messages of being true to yourself and respecting others hold as good today as they did 40 years ago.