MEERA SYAL’S MEENA…A MEMORY OF THE 70s, THOUGHTFUL FOR TODAY
Any show playing Slade and T. Rex standards before the curtain has me well softened up So does the wide, generous vision of Meera Syal, whose 1996 novel (set twenty years earlier) was a teenage-rite-of-passage story . Meena is kicking against her dignified Punjabi family heritage in a rundown slate-mining village in the Black Country. Tanika Gupta adapts it for the stage as a play with songs, understated and simply accompanied, by Ben and Max Ringham, It references glam-rock, morris-tunes and Indian rhythms, though the most an irresistible moment is when the schoolgirl yowls out Cum On Feel The Noize with her uncle’s enthusiastic tabla accompaniment and a chorus of supportively clapping family. Followed, alas, by the teenager’s enthusiastic cry that she loves the song so much she “wants to shag its arse off”. This, of course, being the most vigorous affirmation of affection the innocent moppet has learned from her rough-edged local heroine, Anita.
So there are some terrific moments, and in Bob Bailey’s lovely bricky street set Roxana Silbert directs a nostalgic portrait of the age of tie-dye, Jackie magazine, the coming of Comprehensives and motorways , dogs which still could be called “Nigger” and (let’s face it, since it happens halfway through) the hideous and ignorant youthful sport of “Paki-bashing”.
So far, so good. But it feels more like an observant novel still, series of sketched moments: small conflicts in family and community. Which is interesting, not least in artfully pointing up the irony of Asian immigrant families coming into rough, disaffected white areas and struggling to maintain in their children the dignity, moral standards and family piety of their tradition. The community’s hearts of gold with fags and pinnies are beautifully- notably the marvellous Janice Connolly as Mrs Worrall with her jam tarts and rugged kindness ; but Joseph Drake brilliantly evokes the boy Sam’s journey from an amiable doofus doing wheelies on a Chopper bike to a jobless, half-educated, angry bovver boy lashing out at the Punjabi planning official. Mandeep Dhillon as Meena is a delight, striding and scampering, her body language a lovely innocent contrast to the knowing, roughly sexualized and abused Anita (Jalleh Alizadeh). And as the parents, Ayesha Dharker and Ameet Chana are dignified and touching , especially in Dharker’s sudden expression of lonely, homesick despair at this hard life under an alien sky. Yasmin Wilde, too, is solidly noble as the grandmother, setting the history of colonialism and Partition into intimate family history. And that’s all good.
But as a play, a drama, it doesn’t catch fire until almost too late. All the strong events are in the second half, including a fine showy conversion of the set into a sinister canal-bank. To put it bluntly, not quite enough happens, and not so disastrously as to create a real, shaking conclusion. The plot needs a moment of recklessness to take it beyond a slice of good-hearted soap-opera. Everyone moves on: as it does in a novel, as it does in real life. Not quite theatre: maybe Gupta should have taken more liberties with the novel. But as a slice of 20th century life, it’s perfect.
box office 020 8534 0310 to 21 November