Stella star gets acting education in Hull

Taj Atwal who is appearing in Educating Rita.
Taj Atwal who is appearing in Educating Rita.
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As Taj Atwal prepares to take on the role of Rita in Willy Russell’s seminal play, she speaks to Theatre Correspondent Nick Ahad.

You come away from interviewing Taj Atwal more intrigued by her than when you arrived.

On the face of it she’s a young actor beginning to win plaudits and make decent strides in British television with a range of roles. Impressive, but nothing particularly out of the ordinary when you spend your days interviewing people who work in the creative industries.

Start talking to her and you quickly realise there is a lot more to this young woman than meets the eye.

Atwal has had a really quite exceptional start to her career. From Ruth Jones’s Sky1 comedy drama Stella, to Kay Mellor’s In The Club via Miranda, she appears to have gone from one job to another with aplomb. Still short of her 30th birthday, it’s an impressive set of credits.

Her roles speak of an actor confident with the lighter side of drama – she is particularly deft with comic scenes and with dramatic scenes that require a light touch. But that is what viewers of her television work will already know.

What you might not know is that Atwal, as she prepares to take on one of modern British theatre’s most loved plays, has most recently been working on an intense piece of self-penned drama about youth homelessness.

Right now, however, Atwal’s focus is entirely on the job in front of her – understandably, it is one heck of a job. “I’m busy, really busy,” she says, very quickly adding the actor’s mantra: “But that’s a really good thing. It’s the final week before we open so this week is really gung ho, but it’s great and I’m absolutely loving it.”

It is the final week of rehearsals for a new production from Hull Truck theatre of the Willy Russell classic Educating Rita. The Scouser’s seminal play became an instant classic of British theatre when it was commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1980. The play won the Society of West End Theatres Award for Best Comedy and Best Play and the film version, starring Julie Walters and Michael Caine, was Oscar nominated and won three BAFTAs.

It is a big piece of work to bring to the stage because of its reputation, but the task of actually giving life to Rita and to her curmudgeonly Open University lecturer belongs to just two actors who share the stage in this story.

“I’ve never done a two-hander before,” says Atwal. “We did a run through of the play the other day and a few things went wrong, but what was great about it was realising that me and Simon are capable of pulling each other through when things go wrong. It was a real test, having a run through and it was great to see we are both capable of pulling each other out of trouble when we need to.”

The play tells the story of Scouse hairdresser Rita, in her twenties and with a thirst for knowledge. Her university tutor Frank is a cynical failed poet who drinks like Dylan Thomas. The unlikely friendship that develops between them was brought vividly to life by Walters and Caine in the much loved 1980 movie.

“I don’t think ‘oh my god Julie Walters and Michael Caine did it’. It really does feel like a new play. It is literally new to me – I only read it when I got the audition. Since I got the part I haven’t watched the film and that’s a deliberate decision. I’m not Julie Walters, but I’m not any of the other actors who will have brought their own story to it when playing this part.”

It is seriously admirable that director Mark Babych, artistic director of Hull Truck, has demonstrated a commitment to colourblind casting and given the role of Rita, played by a white woman in most productions, to a British Asian actor.

Fresh-faced Atwal also strikes me as younger than audiences might expect Rita to be.

“You have to remember this is an older play and back then people would have expected a woman Rita’s age to be married. She says herself in the play that she should have kids by now,” says Atwal.

“That might not be the case now, but I relate it to my story as an Indian woman and, when you get to the age of 22, people expect you to be married. It means when I say that line, I’m saying it from my point of view as a British Indian woman.”

Speaking of her point of view, how come Atwal was recently showing her own work at the Leeds Carriageworks last month? It’s not what you’d perhaps expect from someone who appears to be on a career trajectory of roles in British television series.

It turns out the work, which was shown at an early stage of development, was written with her writing partner Francesca Joy.

“It’s about homeless youth, young teens who go into supported housing from care or their own families,” she says.

“Myself and my writing partner grew up in supported housing for a few years and we became best friends through that shared experience. We wanted to talk to other young people in that situation now and write something about what that’s like. It’s funny, with a warm heart, at times it’s poignant and dark – it’s like a slice of real life.”

It’s not something you hear often; that someone in Atwal’s current position came from supported housing.

“It’s not something I want to talk about or share. Although I feel like I’m sharing it with the show and my writing. I’ve never felt comfortable talking about it, so the best way to share the experience is to write about it. That’s my way of sharing it with the world.”

She just gets more intriguing. There’s a lot to this young actor who is on the way up and up.

Educating Rita, Hull Truck, to July 9. 01482 323638.