Coronation Street's Shobna Gulati on new musical opening in Salford
- Credit: Matt Crockett
Joanne Goodwin talks to the actor who is so much more than the sum of her two most famous parts
Shobna Gulati: If you ask Wikipedia about her, or look at the cast background for her latest production – Everybody's Talking About Jamie – or mention her name to just about anybody the response will be: Sunita Alahan in Coronation Street and Anita in Dinnerladies. And while Shobna is justifiably proud of her part in Victoria Wood's much-loved comedy classic, and especially of her ground-breaking role on the cobbles, it's a fact that Dinnerladies finished filming in 2000 and Sunita breathed her last in Corrie in April 2013.
Shobna Gulati's professional and personal CV is so much more than the sum of those two parts – she is a dancer, learning Indian dance (not tap or ballet or modern), from the age of seven; a singer; a Shakespearean, comedic and musical theatre actor; regular on quiz, reality and panel shows; an author; deputy lieutenant for Manchester; ambassador for ethical and natural skincare; active supporter of small independent businesses, charities, and causes including Asian women's rights and anti-racism campaigns; multi-lingual; a scholar... Her talent has taken her from Richard II and Mamma Mia! to Doctor Who and Loose Women; from Have I Got News For You to Countdown and Celebrity Masterchef.
'Since Corrie and Dinnerladies I have worked with a heap of new people and done a lot of things – it is almost a decade since I was last on the cobbles. But because Coronation Street is part of the national tapestry, because Sunita was so iconic and because her legacy lives on through her children (twins Asha and Aadi Alahan), she is still talked about. I am very proud and privileged to have been part of the show, to have been a part of something so embedded in the hearts of the viewing public,' she says.
Sunita and her onscreen husband Dev were such an integral double act they appeared on the 60th anniversary Royal Mail stamp issue showcasing eight of the Street's best-loved duos over the years, alongside Ena Sharples and Elsie Tanner, Stan and Hilda Ogden, Jack and Vera Duckworth, Rita Sullivan and Norris Cole, Tracy and Steve Macdonald, Roy and Hayley Cropper and Ken and Deirdre Barlow.
September sees Shobna back on stage for the restarted national tour of the award-winning musical Everybody's Talking About Jamie, the tale of a 16-year-old drag artist who overcomes prejudice and beats the bullies to achieve his ambitions. Based on a true story, and inspired by the 2011 television documentary Jamie: Drag Queen at 16, the 2021/2022 production opens on Shobna's home territory, at The Lowry, Salford Quays, from September 1 to 12, before visiting Birmingham, Leicester, Wolverhampton, Canterbury, Bristol, Newcastle, Leeds, Cardiff, Liverpool, Hull, Southampton, Nottingham, Norwich, Belfast, Woking, Edinburgh, Sheffield and Milton Keynes, with a four-week Christmas season in Brighton. West End star Layton Williams reprises the lead role, with Shane Richie playing Hugo/Loco Chanelle (until November 20).
Since premiering at Sheffield's Crucible in 2017 and then opening in the West End, the musical has won a string of awards and has now been made into a major new film starring Max Harwood, Richard E Grant, Sharon Horgan, and Shobna's fellow Oldham-er Sarah Lancashire. Sarah is also one of that cast of leading female English actors who honed their skills on the famous Weatherfield cobbles, which also includes Suranne Jones, Katherine Kelly, Julie Hesmondhalgh, Catherine Tyldesley and Michelle Keegan. Shobna appears in the film as Jamie New's 'second mum', Ray, who she first played in the West End in 2018 (she is the only actor to appear in the same role in both film and play). Sarah is Margaret, Jamie's mother and Ray's best friend.
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The story of the boy from a northern, working-class background resonates with Shobna, born in Oldham of South Asian parentage. In real life Shobna has just turned 55; Jamie is 16, yet they are both learning to be comfortable with who and what they are. 'Everybody's Talking About Jamie isn't an issue-led piece. Jamie has already come out – this isn't about his sexuality, it is the story of who he is and the people around him,' says Shobna. 'Being an actor has been a long and arduous journey for me. It is always a struggle to get a part, to go for the audition, to get the recall (or not to get recalled).'
Shobna's audition for Jamie was the exception. At the time she was caring for her mother Asha Gulati (Sunita and Dev Alahan's Coronation Street daughter was named in her honour), who had dementia, and who died in 2019. Asha is the subject of Shobna's book, Remember Me?: Discovering My Mother as She Lost Her Memory, which tells the story of a mind unravelling and which the actor describes as 'an absolute labour of love and honour to write; a love letter to my mum and my heritage that pulls no punches.'
'I'll never forget the day I went to London to audition for Everybody's Talking About Jamie; it was in the middle of winter on a snowy day and I got Mum safe and settled and I explained I wouldn't be away long and she asked me how I would get there in the snow. There were a lot of people in the audition room, including the writer Tom McCrea and the director Jonathan Butterell and I was so, so nervous. On the way home I stopped outside Euston with a friend for some food and got the call there and then from Jonathan to say I had got the part and that they knew as soon as I walked in the room that they wanted me for Ray.' The role sees Shobna singing a solo song and as part of the ensemble. (She rehearsed Ray's song with friends before making the journey south for the audition). 'It is an ensemble play, she says. 'Everyone has a role to play in the story; each character contributes and it's wonderful to be with all those young people and drag queens.'
'There is a universal connection throughout the story of someone finding their way in the world, of how Jamie fits in in this world; it is the story of every one of us. There is no struggle, Jamie is settled with who he is and I feel that at last, in my own life, where I have always struggled, I am beginning to feel comfortable with who I am. People are not accepting; there is a culture war some elements want to perpetuate and everybody, including the gatekeepers of film, TV and theatre, wants to put you in a box, which means I have always been stereotyped because of my cultural heritage rather than seen as someone who is multi-faceted.
'But I now feel, probably because of my age, that this is in my own hands. That I know who I am.'
Both play and film were delayed by the pandemic and Shobna herself is still suffering from the effects of Covid contracted at the start of the outbreak in March last year. 'What the pandemic has shown me is just to get up every day and live my life. I am grateful I didn't die in my house and I still get very tired, my voice is affected and I have brain fuzz. My body is not the same.'
Everybody's Talking About Jame takes Shobna back to the Lowry, and Manchester, where she studied Arab and Middle Eastern politics at the university, taught dance at what was then the Poly (she also has a post-graduate in teaching dance from Middlesex University) and sealed her love for Manchester United football club. 'The reception at the Lowry is like nowhere else,' she says. It is my home territory and there is always a great appreciation of seeing one of their own there; there is nothing like that Manchester/Salford welcome, that Manchester United vibe. I love it there. And of course, it's right next to my other theatre of dreams – Old Trafford.
So what next for Shobna Gulati? There is the BBC One adaptation of the award-winning novel My Name Is Leon and then... 'I'd like to have my own series, to be the protagonist; to have the story built around my character like Suranne (Jones) and Sarah (Lancashire) and Katherine (Kelly) who have all gone on from Coronation Street to do that. I would like to do more films and I love Marvel – isn't it time to have a woman of South Asian heritage born in Britain with a shock of white hair as a Marvel superhero? And either the Master, or the Doctor, would suit' (Shobna appeared in Doctor Who in 2018). ' And I'd like to write another book, some fiction and perhaps poetry, and, of course, there's Broadway...'
Perhaps at that audition for the part of Ray in Everybody's Talking About Jamie, the casting team recognised the parallels between Shobna Gulati and the boy who beats the odds to realise his ambitions. Sunita in Coronation Street and Anita of Dinnerladies may be the roles she is best known for. But there has been, is, and will be so much more to Shobna Gulati.
The theatre tour opens at The Lowry from September 1-12.
thelowry.com, 0343 208 6000
The film Everybody’s Talking About Jamie by New Regency, Film4 and Sheffield-based production company Warp Films will be distributed by 20th Century Studios and released globally on Amazon Prime on September 17.