Theatre Interview: Shobna Gulati, Mamma Mia!, Empire Theatre, Liverpool

Shobna Gulati as Tanya in
Mamma Mia!

With the critically-acclaimed Mamma Mia! set to make its Liverpool bow, Mark Armstrong spoke to Shobna Gulati, an experienced stage performer also renowned for her television work in the likes of Coronation Street and Dinnerladies, about what theatre-goers can expect from the ABBA-themed hit Mamma Mia!

Mamma Mia! tells the tale of Sophie, who is preparing to marry the love of her life, Sky. In the run-up to the wedding, Sophie has a desire for her father to walk her down the aisle, but she does not know who her father is. However, she then finds her mother’s old diary, which reveals intimate encounters with three men, any one of whom could be her father. In an attempt to learn the truth, she invites all three to the wedding, writing invitations from her unsuspecting mother Donna.

Along the way, there are a number of important developments as other people are brought into the fold. But the story is told with a positive energy from all involved, enhanced by the fact that the songs used in the performance are from the ABBA discography. The combination of popular, catchy and feel-good music and an intriguing storyline based on hope leads to a strong, very appealing theatre production. Shobna, who plays Tanya in Mamma Mia!, explains how this is central to the reason why people will enjoy the show so much:

“I myself have been an ABBA fan for years; I’ve always loved their music. To have a chance to do this live, where you are singing and dancing to ABBA songs, is a thrill for me as a performer, and that crosses over to the audience, who will feel good when watching this. We have a great production company and a great cast, and there is always a positive vibe throughout Mamma Mia! I consider it to be the ultimate feel-good musical.

“I am also excited to be involved because it is a live performance of a show which demands a lot of energy from everybody involved. And there is a strong connection between the cast members. In the Mamma Mia! movie (released in 2008), it is a bit different because scenes are filmed with several takes, and one needs to perform only for specific scenes. Here, it is live, and with an audience looking on, you have to bring a high level of energy to your entire performance.”

This project is more enjoyable from a personal standpoint for Shobna as her real-life best friend Sue Devaney is also cast as Rosie. Friendship is a notable aspect of the story, as three central characters Donna, Tanya and Rosie have managed to keep a lifelong friendship alive after so many years and despite not seeing each other for a while. But while Shobna can relate to the friendships featured here, her character is a little different to her actual personality.

She says: “My character Tanya is a feminist, which is similar to myself in real-life. But whereas I am a retiring, boyish type, Tanya is very much out there, she’s brassy, and she has also become posh, which is not something to expect from the real me!”

Of course, Shobna is also known for other roles, including the character Sunita Alahan in Coronation Street. But she is a versatile performer who can adapt to a variety of surroundings and situations. And she notes that there are big differences between acting on the small screen and performing on stage:

“I love theatre the most because each night is different, largely because the audience and their reactions will be different every single night. Working on a soap is very different, and acting in a soap is even different to other forms of television. Soap is a unique genre, which involves filming in advance, and learning one set of lines for one scene and then moving towards the next. For theatre, you have to know it all, and be able to do it well, and to be able to modify your performance each night depending on how the audience may react. You have to go through rehearsals, you have to understand the technical side including stage directions. In theatre, you have to get it right every single night, and you have to be prepared to make changes which make your performance a little bit different. I love it.”

It certainly looks as if Mamma Mia! will have a big impact on the audience. It provides a feel-good, summertime feel to a production being shown in the late winter. It brings a real positive energy with it, and Shobna is very much a strong casting in this production. So, all that remains to be asked is: what is Shobna’s favourite ABBA song?

“I’d probably say “Lay All Your Love On Me, only because it’s the boys singing and dancing, which is lovely to look at and listen to!”

Mamma Mia!

(Thanks to Shobna Gulati for her participation in this interview, and thanks to Victoria Armstrong of the Liverpool Empire Theatre in making this interview happen.)

Mamma Mia runs in the Liverpool Empire Theatre from Tuesday February 24-Saturday March 14. For ticket information, click here.

You can learn more about Mamma Mia! by clicking here.