There were two home fixtures in Wolverhampton on Tuesday night. The first was at Molineux, where Wolverhampton Wanderers were at home. The second was at the Grand, where Meera Syal’s play was opening for the first night of its 2017 tour.
Set in the fictional Tollington, based just outside of Wolverhampton, an unusually, and welcome, ethnically diverse audience turned out to support a production that tells the tale of a young Sikh, Punjabi girl, Meena, and her family, growing up in the West Midlands in the 1970’s.Black Country accents were going to be under unusually intense scrutiny.
Syal’s story has flourished as a book, film and stage show. Its ingredients are nostalgia, xenophobia and humour, racism and song, family, growing up and love. Although the reality of the problems faced by the immigrant community are never dodged, this is no didactic polemic, instead a joyful celebration of the human spirit.
The outdoor set, depicting terraced houses tightly packed, crouches around the stage as a community has to deal with economic uncertainty, a new transport link, and a school closure, all depressingly familiar forty years later. Seventies references abound, not least with the ubiquitous chopper bicycle, and Jackie, the magazine for teenage girls, which sold over half a million copies a week, with its rabidly read ” Cathy and Clare” problems page, essential reading for dealing with life’s challenges for young girls.
Set and costume designer Bob Bailey has done a wonderful job in creating the stage and vibrantly coloured costume , as have Ann Yee and Sara Green in bringing the movement and dance alive. Inevitably Coronation Street and Loose Women star, Shobna Gulati, attracts the most interest as Daljit, Meena’s mother, but it is Rina Fatania as grandmother Namima who grabs the limelight with her larger than life characterisation and comedy.
The mini -skirted Laura Anamayo shines as the eponymous Anita, unlikely and sometimes unsuitable friend to Meena (Aasiya Shah), her boyfriend Sam ( Sam Lowbridge) brings a realistic dark edge to proceedings with his anti-immigrant views and behaviour. Inevitably a stage adaptation of a book has to precis and simplify , Tanika Gupta is up to the task. the show will not disappoint those familiar with the book and film. Anita is rough, her backstory an explanation for, but not an excuse for, her actions. The violence meted out by her and her boyfriend is mirrored by the violence her mother is experiencing at home. Gupta has quite a lot to cram in.
Director Roxana Silbert has skilfully balanced competing themes to produce a feel good show which transcends age, gender and race. The impromptu song and dance numbers always entertain, and are sometimes unexpected. Yet the fact that the show is neither a full blown musical, nor straight play, is part of its charm. An enthusiastic audience offered a rousing reception at the final curtain, something I suspect will become routine as this show, which runs till Sat 18th , continues its tour to Cheltenham, Blackpool, Nottingham, Bradford and Edinburgh.