There's something highly commendable at the effort behind bringing Meera Syal's 1996 novel Anita and Me to the stage, but at the same time something utterly frustrating given the talent and resources involved that it couldn't have been realised in a more effective way. At best, this has the feel and tone of a school play - right down to the gawky teacher figure in a bad wig who wanders on and attempts to provide diegetic accompaniment to a number of awful songs that can have only been an afterthought.
It's a piece about cultural identity, yet the main problem is the show's own identity crisis. Billed as a 'play with music', it attempts to cover all bases and ends up doing neither effectively. Whilst there is great musical potential in the story (the thunder has been stolen somewhat by 'Bend it Like Beckham', which deals with similar themes in a marginally more successful way) it's never allowed to push the boundaries and grab its chosen medium with both hands.
The music, when not being played on a tinny onstage keyboard is pumped through via a MIDI file or similar that devalues the work considerably. The vocal sound is basic at best, and considering the talent and number of actors on stage, fails to fill the room. For a show that has such richness in cultural potential, from the wonderful Indian instruments and dances that threaten to happen, we're deprived of all of that - instead we're given a glimpse into what this show has the potential to be.
Roxana Silbert's direction fails to heighten the piece, and in many cases does it a disservice. There's no sense in location or time - doors are entered and exited on a whim, inconsistencies in space compound the problem, and the general tone suffers as a result. With a single unit set that is sometimes played realistically, it suddenly turns representative as walls become dining tables, and all dimensions suddenly shift, and the world in which the characters are operating becomes a confusing muddle for both actors and audience.
It's not all doom and gloom, there are some laughs along the way, mainly at the expense of cultural stereotyping. Themes such as domestic violence and extreme racism are handled so flippantly that there's never a sense of danger and resolutions are solved in the blink of eye. Each character is pushed so far to the realms of realism you struggle to conceive they were at all real - autobiographical or not. Whilst important to the story, these additional themes are pounded on the narrative so far that the central relationship between Meena and Anita often becomes side-lined, and to quote another audience member, the piece quickly becomes 'Anita and Everybody Else'.
There are some fine performances from the large and committed ensemble, ranging from Ameet Chana and Ayesha Dharker as Meena's parents to well-judged support from Janice Connolly and Amy Booth-Steel, who shines in her cut-from-reality musical number, the style of which is never seen again.
For a venue that's so rich in theatrical ingenuity and creativity, this pedestrian attempt feels like an extended workshop, or the final result of a drama school holiday half-term workshop. Stifled beneath this however, I'm confident there is a much better show waiting to get out. Send in the dramaturg.