Interview with Harvey Virdi

Actor and writer Harvey Virdi has been working in Theatre, TV and Film for over 20 years, including the National Theatre, RSC, Hampstead Theatre and regional Rep; her film credits include Honour, Jadoo, Brick Lane, Bend it Like Beckham, Bride & Prejudice and Thunderbirds. She plays Mrs Malik in BBC One’s comedy series Citizen Khan and recently performed in the RSC’s Roaring Girl Season.

Harvey has also worked on a number of Rifco productions as a writer and performer including There’s Something About Simmy, Meri Christmas, The Deranged Marriage and Airport 2000.

Editor Wendy Thomson speaks to Harvey Virdi about her play Happy Birthday Sunita a Rifco production which is currently on tour.

Q – How did Happy Birthday Sunita come about, and how long did it take you to write it?

Pravesh Kumar (Artistic Director of Rifco) and I met up in early 2013 to talk about a new play. He wanted to set a play during a 40th birthday party, a rite of passage for all of us, whether we welcome it or not and often full of tension.

I was keen to explore the idea of a working class Punjabi mother finding the courage to break free from all the traditional expectations in order to follow her heart.
I started by creating the characters: how they spoke, what they thought/believed and what they wanted etc. I then wrote a very loose first draft. Then, we spent a week improvising with some wonderful actors, after which I went off and started writing in earnest. The whole process has taken nearly a year and a half and seven drafts before a final draft was approved and ready for rehearsal.

Q – What is your most memorable experience to date, on or off stage, in a Rifco production?

The most memorable experience has to be during Airport 2000, Leicester Haymarket Theatre. I was backstage doing a very quick change. The audience was howling with laughter. I felt I was in a bubble and time stood still - all I could hear was the wonderful sound of laughter – and then there was the sudden realization they were laughing at something I had written…it was like being given a gift you didn't know you wanted.

Q – Is the subject of family something that you are often compelled to write about? What is revealed about human nature in Happy Birthday Sunita?

I'm intrigued by human relationships, family relationships…how sometimes we seem to know nothing about the people we love the most. How sometimes the people we love the most, we treat the worst.

And the of course, there is this other layer: that of British Asian-ness…What does it even mean? I think we ‘British Asians’ are a new breed: a hybrid mix of the India of old (that lives only in the memories of our parents (and perhaps grandparents) and the experiences of those early immigrants to this country…the racism, the trying to fit in, the living in one room while you worked your socks off to make a new life for your family, the old belief systems challenged by new opportunities. Add to this the word WOMEN…and the role we are expected to play within our society – the latent belief that if a woman stands up for what she believes in, she is dangerous. And maybe that’s why many women (of my mum’s generation certainly) have been too afraid to rock the boat, too afraid to challenge society/culture for fear of them, or their family being ostracized.

Q – Are you involved in the Act for Change project (to increase diversity in TV drama) and what are your thoughts on this subject?

I firmly believe and support in the Act for Change project. Speaking to some older actors, I know this is something many have been fighting for over the years but now is the time for producers/casting directors /directors etc. to take responsibility for their casting decisions and reflect the wonderful diversity of this country in their programming, whether it be theatre, TV or film.

Q – Do you prefer writing or acting?

I love both – I suppose I am acting out scenes in my head when I'm writing…

Q – Happy Birthday Sunita will tour to the United Arab Emirates and to India. Do you expect there to be much difference in the audience react ion to the play compared to Britain?

I have no idea how the play will be received. The play is about a Punjabi mother who throws aside the constraints of community, family etc. to follow her heart. I am looking forward to seeing the audience reaction - the audiences here have loved it.

Q – How do you achieve a work/life balance?

It’s hard, especially when I’m rehearsing a play. The hours can be long and your whole world becomes about the play and the character you are playing. During tech/previews, we can be working 12 hour days. It really doesn’t give you much time to catch up with friends and family. Someone waiting for you with a smile and a large glass of red wine as you come home after a long day is a godsend.

Q – In terms of gender equality do you prefer the word actor or actress?

I have always called myself an actor.

Q – Who do you find inspirational?

My mum and dad.

Q – What is the next project for you that you can tell Female Arts about?

A few things simmering away in the pot – theatre early next year, two new writing projects…I find it’s always best to go with the flow…

Twitter account: Harvey Virdi@HarveyVirdi1

Happy Birthday Sunita

Tour Dates:
Watford Palace Theatre 19 – 21 September
Arena Theatre, Wolverhampton 23 – 27 September
West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds 1 – 4 October
Oldham Coliseum Theatre 7 – 11 October
Watermans, Brentford 14 – 18 October
Mercury Theatre, Colchester 21 October
The Woodville, Gravesend 24 – 25 October
DUCTAC, Dubai 26 - 29 November
Experimental Theatre, NCPA Mumbai 2 - 3 December
Habitat World, Delhi 5 - 6 December

Author's review: