Tuesday, September 26

Wish Sunita a happy birthday at Leeds Playhouse

Harvey Virdi is best known as Dr Misbah Maalik on long-running TV soap Hollyoaks, but she is also a writer who scored a hit play back in 2014 with Happy Birthday Sunita.

The revival of the play is about the power of British Asian women on stage is on its way to Leeds Playhouse and Harvey tells us about the fun you can have with a dysfunctional family.

What’s Happy Birthday Sunita all about?

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?

What are the new team of actors bringing to this tour?

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?

Were the three strong British Asian women at the heart of the story inspired by women you know?

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.

Photo: Ellie Kurttz

As both an actor and writer, does that help you to write for other performers?

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.

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.

Happy Birthday Sunita is in the Courtyard theatre at Leeds Playhouse from 13th-17th June. Book online at www.leedsplayhouse.org.uk or call the box office on 0113 213 7700.