Loose Woman Shobna’s challenge in comedy tour
She has played the ditzy Anita in dinnerladies and downtrodden Sunita Alahan in Coronation Street – a role which left her suffering from depression as she struggled to cope with fame and financial problems. Now Shobna Gulati is taking on a new challenge: appearing in John Godber’s comedy April in Paris at Derby Theatre and on tour.
One of the reasons she left the long-running soap was to concentrate on comedy; April in Paris means she is working with one of the finest writers of his generation whose plays were almost incessantly performed in Derby two decades ago.
Shobna speaks extremely highly of Godber: “It’s quite funny meeting a man whose plays you’ve studied. He’s a legend. It’s brilliant working with him – he’s got real insight.
“And what’s amazing about him as a writer/director is that he lets you have a go. He’s actually acted in April in Paris, so you’ve got a situation where you’ve got a man who’s written it, acted it and is now directing you. You think that would be quite a controlled situation but it’s not – it’s a really open process. Without sounding corny, it’s really deep and it’s a really privileged position to be in.”
Shobna plays Bet while Joe McGann, best known for appearing in the TV series The Upper Hand in the 1990s, is her husband Al. Their marriage is going through difficulties and they wonder whether a trip to experience the romance of Paris will rekindle their relationship. So what appealed to Shobna about Bet?
“I’m going to be quite political here. If you look at me, you’ll define me by how you see me. A lot of people define me from my cultural background.
“What struck me about this play was the universality of it. As an actress of my cultural background, I’ve found it difficult over the years to actually find a character like that where I can just play that human being in that situation somewhere on the M62 on the end terrace of the street that they live in.”
It is a veiled criticism of directors and producers who do not see her as being able to play certain roles. In fact Godber suggested Shobna for the part of Bet. He has completely rewritten the play, first staged in 1992, to suit Shobna and Joe McGann.
“John wrote it for himself and his wife initially. After he’d met us both he went away and rewrote it. It’s amazing what he’s done with it. It’s changed for our natural speaking rhythms as well as who we are as people.”
After obtaining a degree in Arabic and middle eastern politics from the University of Manchester she enrolled on a post-graduate course in dance in London. She added a diploma from Middlesex University which qualified her as a dance teacher. But acting was her first love.
“Because of my cultural background I had to do something academic. I wasn’t going to be a lawyer, a doctor or a dentist, much to my parents’ chagrin, though secretly I think my mum didn’t really mind at all.
“While I was at university in Manchester I did drama as a subsidiary. I just snuck it in at every available opportunity.
“My big break was when I was working at the Theatre Royal Stratford East. I went on stage and not only did I dance, I did little comedy interludes.
“An agent came to watch and she said ‘you’re a fantastic dancer and really funny. That’s a talent and a gift, so let’s get you up in front of people.’ Then I went up in front of Victoria Wood and the rest is history!”
Shobna was watched by more than 12million people who tuned in to watch dinnerladies and recognised her talent for comedy. Even more viewers were to see a different sort of talent when she got the part of Sunita in Corrie.
Before I finish one job I need to know I’ve got another in place. I can’t sit about – I find it really difficult to rest
For 12 years she played the unlucky-in-love shop girl who turned into a raunchy barmaid. “I didn’t really get much comedy in Coronation Street! I cried a lot and nearly died a lot and eventually was killed,” says Shobna who is one of the few actors who has appeared in both Corrie and EastEnders. So how did that come about?
“I’d gone for an audition for EastEnders on the Monday and Coronation Street on the Thursday. The following week my agent asked me to sit down and told me I’d got both jobs. That was a blessing – it doesn’t often happen. Of course in true Shobna style I said can I do both? That’s how I am. Before I finish one job I need to know I’ve got another in place. I can’t sit about – I find it really difficult to rest. Sometimes you have to rest because there’s no work. But I’ll always find something to do.”
Almost 18 months ago Shobna revealed yet another talent: she became a television presenter on the lunchtime show Loose Women. Does the tour of April in Paris sit conveniently with her commitments to that programme?
“Yes, it does fit in with Loose Women because all the Loose Women have other jobs besides being loose!”
“I got three (shows) in before I started April in Paris and I’ll probably work on Loose when we’re on a different leg of the journey, maybe when we’re down south. So I can do Loose in the morning and then come and do a play at night.
“Anything’s possible, and of course Loose finishes for the summer. It’s a very good job that way, Loose is – it’s very adaptable and flexible.”
That seems a good description of Shobna who has been a writer, choreographer and film producer as well as an actor and dancer.
She admits there will be a lot of pressure on her and Joe McGann because they are the only two actors in April in Paris.
“There has to be a lot of trust between us. There are no big speeches; basically he says something, I say something, he says something. There’s no let-up for the amount of time we’re on stage. And sometimes, though we’re talking to each other, we’re not really talking to each other, if that makes sense. It is a very challenging process.”
Away from show business, Shobna has a passion for cooking – people can book her to cook curry in their home for 12 people. Starting price: £10,000. The money goes to her favourite charities including the Manchester United Foundation – she is an avid Reds’ fan – and two children’s hospices in the north of England.
So what’s next for Shobna after the tour of April in Paris? “I want to play Cleopatra – I’m old enough now, I’m nearly 50. You never know which producing house might say, ‘Shobna, come on, let’s do Antony and Cleopatra’. It doesn’t matter where!”
No doubt theatres will be queuing up to offer Shobna the part of the tragic Egyptian queen considered to be one of the most complex female roles penned by Shakespeare.
* This article appeared in the July 2014 issue of Country Images magazine