As hit show Anita and Me arrives in Bradford, the young actor in the lead role speaks to Theatre correspondent Nick Ahad.
Growing up, Aasiya Shah never saw girls who looked like her on stage.
Now, thanks to her first major role, a generation of girls will get to see her on stage, representing their story, telling the tale of what it means to be British and Asian.
“Whenever I saw a character who looked like me on the stage, or even on television or film, they were only ever the side character. People who looked like me were never the main character in anything,” says the East London girl, whose parents are Pakistani.
“It always left me wanting more, left me kind of unsatisfied.”
Taking on a main role in a comedy drama that puts the British Asian experience at the heart of the story is one way to get that satisfaction.
Shah arrives in Bradford next week with Anita and Me, the hit stage play that is currently on a nationwide tour.
Adapted by the multi-award winning Tanika Gupta from the book by Meera Syal, the story follows young Meena on a journey of self-discovery.
When the novel was published it was to great acclaim – and a huge sense of relief in many corners of British society. The British Asian story was finally being told from the same perspective that Sue Townsend took when she gave us Adrian Mole.
And it wasn’t a story full of stereotypes and tropes: written by one of the brains behind Goodness Gracious Me, it was a heartfelt and authentic story about a Punjabi girl growing up in in the 1970s in the Black Country and trying to understand who she was and where her place in the world was.
The book was soon turned into a movie and was then adapted in 2015 for the stage by Gupta.
For Shah, landing the role of the sparky, feisty and impressionable young Meena was a dream come true. It is in fact one of those stories that seems like a total dream.
“I did a BTEC in drama and I had done a course at the Lyric Hammersmith in London,” says the 20-year-old.
“And then I got the phone call to say I had landed this part. I nearly screamed the ceiling down. Up until now I had only done really tiny parts, so this was unbelievably exciting.”
The lack of diversity in theatre, in television, in movies – in the arts in general – has long been an issue that continually looks as though it is finally being dealt with, only for significant and lasting change to appear to be a mirage. Schemes come and go, yet still ethnic minorities are woefully under-represented in the performing arts.
In late January Julian Fellowes was highlighting the problem, saying ‘I feel quite strongly that ethnic minorities don’t get a look-in. The way to get a better balance in our artistic community is in casting’. Which was great. It would have been better had Fellowes not essayed this rallying call while also defending his all-white cast for his production of Half A Sixpence.
Andrew Lloyd Webber also got in on the act at the back end of last year, publishing a report paid for by his philanthropic foundation that concluded that modern British theatre is ‘hideously white’.
Shah experiences this at the sharp end. She experienced it when she was growing up and saw there were no role models and she experiences now that she is in the industry.
Now, though, she is taking on a lead role in a nationally touring play. Does that mean things have turned a corner?
She’s circumspect with her answer. She might only be 20-years-old, but this performer has reason enough in her young career for cynicism.
Choosing her words incredibly carefully, she says: “It feels… like…we may… be getting there.
“It’s a slow and painful journey. There are more ethnic minority people engaging with the arts and with performing and that’s great.
“But the truth is, I don’t want to make any great forecasts about where we’re heading. I think the answer is to ask me in five years, then I’ll tell you if things have changed.”
It’s sad but telling that such a young actor can already be so seemingly jaded at the lack of opportunity.
The truth is, she says, the ethnic minority performing community need to have people from within writing their own stories. That is how the almost complete lack of representation is going to be tackled. “I think if this was written by someone who wasn’t from that background, then it wouldn’t have felt quite as authentic,” she says.
“That’s the beauty of this story, it’s written by someone who really understands what it’s like to grow up in Britain as an ethnic minority.”
As it is, with two of the leading lights of the British Asian theatre scene in Tanika Gupta and Meera Syal, authenticity is in the bones of Anita and Me.
Originally directed by Roxana Silbert, the production comes to Bradford next week with Shobna Gulati in the role of Daljit.
“It’s been an absolute dream job, especially as my first major role in something. We met Meera, but only really briefly. She came to see the show and we knew she was in so when we came off stage we just ripped our costumes off and got changed really quickly, still sweating we ran down to stage door and they told us that she’d left because she had to catch a train. We ran outside and just saw this silhouette of Meera walking away so we chased after her and got to meet her. She was lovely and it was amazing to get to meet her and speak to her,” says Shah, demonstrating just how important a role model is.