Ex-Corrie favourite Shobna Gulati talks about starring in Anita And Me at the Wolverhampton Grand

In the 20 years since Meera Syal's semi-autobiographical portrait of life in the Black Country in the 1970s first appeared in print, it's become something of a contemporary classic, spawning a popular film adaptation and even, much to Syal's own bemusement, becoming a GCSE set text.                                

In 2015, Anita And Me made its stage debut at Birmingham REP; now the theatre’s artistic director, Roxana Silbert, is bringing the much-loved story back home to the Midlands with a run at the Wolverhampton Grand.

Starring in the show as mother to the teenage protagonist Meena (the ‘Me’ of the title) is Shobna Gulati, best known for her long-running role as Sunita Alahan in Coronation Street, as well as for her regular appearances on Loose Women. Taking over the role of Daljit from Ayesha Dharker, Gulati is very much looking forward to returning to the city and the theatre.

“I love Wolverhampton,” she says. “I've got quite a special relationship with it, actually. When I was a dancer I used to work for Sampad, so I went round schools in Cannock, Wolverhampton and Birmingham teaching creative dance using Indian Classical dance as a basis. I was also here for 16 weeks to do panto - in those days the Grand's was the longest-running panto in the country.”
Gulati describes her character Daljit as a loving but often quietly disapproving mother who, like many parents, has a “sticky relationship” with her daughter.

“I think Daljit sees a lot of herself in Meena, and is perhaps still holding onto her own childhood through her, but obviously as a teenager Meena wants to explore things for herself. Daljit knows that she had a good upbringing back at home and she struggles to understand why that same upbringing isn't working for Meena in a different place. She never loses her temper, she's just frustrated and can't understand why Meena has to fight so often when she and her husband give her all the love and support in the world.”

Meera Syal remains closely involved with the retelling of her story, and the opportunity to finally work with her - as well as with award-winning playwright Tanika Gupta - was a major factor in Gulati's decision to join the cast.

“Meera and I have always sort of missed each other on the way. We've known of each other but we've never been able to work together because our schedules have never quite matched up. I think the things that people like Meera have achieved are just amazing - they've put their heads above the parapet and just kept going despite the struggles of being 'other' in this community we all live in. And because it's semi-autobiographical, in a way, I get to play Meera's mum, so it's a real honour.”
Despite not having read the book or seen the film before, Gulati immediately identified with the characters, finding elements of the story that chimed with her own experiences of growing up in an immigrant family in industrial Oldham.

“I am going to be playing my mum! Maybe that's a cop-out, but Meera and I are around the same age, and I can see a lot of my relationship with my mother when I was a teenager in this story. In fact, it's even more like my mum's relationship with my big sister. I was the youngest girl in my family, but when my sister was growing up, my mum and dad were in England bringing up a young girl for the first time.
“My sisters always used to read Jackie magazine, and although it was more Smash Hits by the time I was a teenager, I do remember slipping their copies of Jackie under my pillow at night to have a read of it. There's a great bit in the play where Daljit's having a go at Meena about that - you know, Cathy and Clare, what do they know? All they know about is boyfriends, and it's not important. All of this - family and community - is what's important.”

Things have changed considerably since 1972, but there's also plenty that's stayed the same. Perhaps more pertinently, thinks Gulati, there are aspects of Britain in 2017 which seem to have more in common with the culture of the 1970s than with life in the intervening decades.

“From a historical point of view, the story examines the movement of people into small communities and how those communities responded. You've got these areas where economically things are tough for everyone, and the thing to blame always seemed to be whoever was considered an outsider. When I was growing up, I was constantly reminded of how different I was, and for a while I thought that things were moving on, but I think we've actually gone slightly backwards now. We've gone back to people feeling suspicious of people from other places, and as a grown-up adult I'm once again reminded of how different I am, even though I was born and raised here.”

Fortunately, there are movements for positive change, and this very production aims to be part of that, promoting engagement and interaction between communities.

“Anita And Me is part of the legacy of a group called the Touring Consortium, who go into theatres that don't necessarily have that engagement with the wider diverse community. Hopefully this play will be a good way of beginning a process for people who perhaps aren't quite so culturally engaged, and helping to turn the wheel forwards again.”

Some places have further to go than others. Gulati has loved her time performing in Grease at Leicester's Curve Theatre, describing it as a place where “diversity permeates”. As rehearsals for Anita And Me commence, that production is still ongoing, leaving her running between Leicester and Wolverhampton in the middle of the day. It sounds like hard work, but she shrugs it off.
“I'm a bit of a boring old person now because I'm just getting up, going to work, going to another work, going home to bed, and then getting up and doing it all again! In my youth I'd have done the same, but then I'd also have gone out for a drink afterwards. I probably wouldn't have slept! But I can't burn the candle at both ends anymore...”

Though it's something she's come to relatively late in her career, musical theatre is a natural choice for Gulati, who has always sung at home and started dance classes at the tender age of seven. One of her first jobs after leaving Coronation Street was on the UK tour of Mamma Mia!, which she says was a bit like coming “full circle”.
“In Western culture we often tend to put things in boxes - you either sing or dance or act or play music - whereas in Indian Classical dance you do all those things. It's expressive, so you learn to act as well as how to dance technically and to accompany, so it's a more holistic way of looking at performance. When my mum came to see Mamma Mia!, she said, 'This is what you've always wanted to do, right from when you were a little girl.'”

So with such a varied career behind her, what's next for Shobna Gulati? Is there anything still left to tick off the list? “Well, I've been making my way for the last 31 years, and I think I've done most things at some point, but do you know... I've never actually been a lead. So if there was something that would be suitable for someone of my age, I'd love to do that. I'd love to play Cleopatra in Anthony And Cleopatra. I feel like I'm ready for that now.” 

Anita And Me shows at Wolverhampton's Grand Theatre from Tuesday 14 to Saturday 18 February