Actor and writer Harvey Virdi, best know as Dr Misbah Maalik on long-running TV soap Hollyoaks, tells us about her hit play Happy Birthday Sunita, the power of British Asian women on stage, and the fun you can have with a dysfunctional family
Tell us a bit about Happy Birthday Sunita.
It’s Friday evening and the family are gathering to celebrate Sunita’s special birthday. But after years of denial and strained relationships, emotions are running high and the family is finally forced to face the truth. Can they be brave and let go of the past and embrace a new future?
The play, which first became a hit in 2014, is returning with an amazing new cast – can you tell us a bit about them? And what a new cast brings to the play?
They absolutely are an amazing new cast; really experienced and creative. A new cast always forces you to see your play in a fresh light. They bring their thoughts and questions and unpick the play in a way which forces you to let go of the previous production and bring this one into being. They also add to the subtlety and questioning which I think we all feel after the pandemic. What do we want? How do we want to live our lives? Are we brave enough to do it?
It’s wonderful to see three strong British Asian women at the heart of the story – and each so different. Were they inspired by women you know? And how important is it that we have an array of British Asian characters on our stages?
For me, the play is definitely about these three strong Asian women. They are all at different stages of their lives and are all questioning where they are in life and what they want. Can they stop listening to old family and community values to follow their dreams? Even now, the men in their lives are trying to control them.
Each character is inspired by women I have known. The aunties whose stories I grew up listening to, their struggles to live the life they wanted (often failing), the pressure to bow to family and community. The younger women who weren’t allowed to follow their dreams and young Asian women of today who are maybe straddling both and striving for change.
It is so important we hear their stories – especially our mothers and aunties’ generation. Their stories, struggles and experiences are often never heard or talked about. It is important to give these women a voice; for them to be seen.
As an actor and writer, does that help you to write for other actors; to make the dialogue work for them?
The similarities between writing and acting are that you’re creating characters and trying to tell their stories. Being an actor means another writer has worked really hard, often for years, to bring a character to you. It’s up to me to bring that character to life in front of camera or on stage and do their work justice.
The easiest thing for me is always creating the characters, who they are, how they talk, what they want, the dialogue etc. The hardest is making sure the storytelling is clear, so the audience are not left with more questions at the end of the play. A confused audience is not a happy audience.
Do you prefer writing to acting – or do they both fulfil you in different ways?
I love both acting and writing. When I’ve been acting for a while, I yearn for the quietness of working on my own on a new piece of writing. Of course, a few months of that and I’m desperate to be in a rehearsal room or in front of a camera!
What inspires you as a writer – what drives you?
As a writer, I like to tell women’s stories. Stories we never get to hear about. Stories that make you look at someone and think, huh, I never knew that about her! We are quick to make assumptions aren’t we? Delving deeper can be more challenging.
Happy Birthday Sunita centres on a dysfunctional family. How important was it for you to create a British Asian family we can all relate to?
Writing Happy Birthday Sunita was a chance to explore family dynamics. Family drama always appeals to us, because we all have a family. There are loves and rivalries and everything in between. The Johals happen to be a Punjabi family but we can all recognise a dysfunctional family; regardless of their background, we all have experiences of this. But it was important for me to give these British Asian women a voice on stage. For our mothers and aunties to see themselves and be able to relate to those women
Who are you hoping the play will appeal to?
I hope the play appeals to everyone. You can make it an evening out with your friends or decide to take your family. Or both! The show is in English and Punjabi, a lovely hybrid that all British Asian families will recognise. The show works for everyone.
When audiences are leaving the Courtyard after seeing Happy Birthday Sunita, what conversations do you hope they will be having?
I’m hoping the audiences will leave the theatre having laughed out loud, having recognised characters from their own families and hopefully asking themselves if they’re brave enough to follow their hearts. They’ll definitely leave with a smile on their face.
Can you tell us about your own favourite birthday celebration?
A birthday memory for me is when my friends organised a surprise birthday party for me. I was touched that they would do that for me, but it also spooked me that I never cottoned on. I had no idea – and that freaks me out to this day!