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Sabrina Sandhu Starts in East is East at Nottingham Playhouse

23 May 17 interview: Hazel Ward

When the film East is East hit our screens in the late nineties, the UK was tickled and charmed, with heartstrings up and down the country receiving a right good tug. This month, the Nottingham Playhouse sees the story unfold in theatrical form, and we can’t bleddy wait. We had a chat with Television Workshop alumni Sabrina Sandhu, who plays Meenah, in her first ever interview; an honour, seeing as she’s sure to be a right star soon...

What got you into performing?
I sang from quite a young age in school concerts, then started auditioning for school plays and local drama groups. It was then that I realised how much I enjoy being on stage and playing different characters. One of the tutors at my local drama group also worked at The Television Workshop, and she told me about the upcoming auditions to join the group.

How did The Television Workshop help you?
When I first joined, I didn't get in. I was in the reserve group for a year, which made me want it even more. In that year, I worked on my improvisation skills because that’s a huge part of what the Workshop does. It’s helped me to create natural characters, and reined me in from some of the OTT things I'd been doing before. It made me find truth in a character.

You’re also a member of the all-female comedy troupe, Major Labia; how did that come about?
Our director, Siobhán Cannon-Brownlie, is a Workshop alumni. We were sick and tired of people saying women aren't funny, and we wanted to prove them wrong. There's a core group of us and we're all Workshop alumni; it's fun making sketch comedy with your mates. We have a laugh. And we hope the audience does as, too.

Because we talk about things that aren't talked about all the time, people laugh out loud. What really helps is that we’re all best mates. The chemistry between us transfers on stage because we all know each other inside-out, so we bring out the best in each other.

So, East is East. What’s Meenah, your character, like?
They asked me a similar question in my audition, and I said she's really lairy. She's a lairy Larry. She’s always got something to say, and rightly so. I think growing up in a family of boys, she's had to stand her own ground, and she does a good job of getting her opinions across and fighting for what she cares for. She really cares about her family, as well.

Were you familiar with East is East before auditions?
It's one of my family's favourite films and I love it to bits, but I hadn't read the play until the audition. There are certain things that are explored in the play more than they are in the film. It's really nice to see comedy happening in front of you, live; there are a lot of situations that I find a lot funnier in the play. In the film, we see Nazir walk away from an arranged marriage, whereas the play starts after he's left. It's all about the family, showing the struggles they’ve had to overcome. The play tackles a lot of themes, like domestic abuse and racism. It's a comedy, but it covers some really important subject matter.

Was it daunting playing a character you’ve already seen on screen?
I was a bit scared at first because Archie Panjabi did a great job of it in the film. But Meenah’s got a lot more to say for herself in the play,  so it was a new slate for me.

How do you think East is East’s seventies world is relevant to today’s audiences?
It's this whole idea of differences in generations. We've got a white mother, a Pakistani father and mixed-race children, so it's tackling how they would have been treated. It's made me feel close to my roots, because my grandma was Irish, so my mum's half-Indian, half-Irish, and my dad's Indian. Even though I never got to meet my grandma, it’s making me realise the struggles and sacrifices she would have had to make.

It's very hard for George Khan, [the father in East is East] because he's wanting to show the kids their culture and make them understand where they're from. Yet they're here, they have a white, British mother and he's not really coming to terms with the fact that his kids are different to him; his kind of upbringing isn't the way forward for them, necessarily. It's all about that generational struggle they've got going on, with differences in lifestyle and upbringing.

How has it been, working with Vicky Entwistle?
It's been so much fun; she's such an amazing actress. One day we were doing improvisation, and having one-on-ones with our character to discover our relationships. I got to do an improvisation with Vicky, and we both got quite emotional; it made me understand my relationship with my stage mum a bit more. My family watched Corrie so they were really pleased that Vicky had been cast, but I hadn’t watched it that much. I knew who Janice Battersby was, though. She's been so lovely and approachable and made everyone feel comfortable.

East is East provides a different point of view from the usual white, straight male perspective. How do think theatre in the UK is dealing with the need for more diversity in plays?
There's a lot more to be done, and I'm hoping it's going to get better. It's a difficult question because this is the first theatre role that I've auditioned for. I've been up for TV and film stuff, and that speaks volumes in itself about whether those characters are out there. It is being spoken about more, and people are letting everybody know that the lack of diversity does need to change.

So, we need to make existing roles open to all ethnicities, as well as getting plays with more diverse points of view?
Yeah, casting regardless of race. And also, not casting purely to have ethnicity within a play. Sometimes Indian characters are used as comic relief in a play, with strong Indian accents. It can be quite ridiculing. You want to be there because you're good, not something that's laughable. You need to make sure that comedy is punching upwards rather than downwards. There are a lot of characters that can be interchangeable, so I’m hoping people see that, and that it happens more.

You sing, do theatre, TV, film, and dance. What comes first for you?
I love them all, but acting holds my heart. I love theatre, but do enjoy TV. I've not had many TV opportunities, so I'm hoping that I'll get more work in that area. It's something I want to get to know a bit better. With theatre, you've got digs and you're living with lots of other actors. It's really nice to be rehearsing and working on your craft day in, day out, which you don't always get the opportunity to do when you're on set.

What’s next for you?
When I finish East is East, I'm filming for two weeks on Diddy TV for CBBC with Dick and Dom, which I also did two years ago. It's comedy sketches. You get to play with lots of different accents and characters, and wear lots of different wigs, which is always fun. Then I'm looking forward to having a summer of, hopefully, sunshine! I’ll go check out Edinburgh Fringe, see what’s cracking off, and be available to audition. I'm also part of the theatre company Sheep Soup, and we've got a show called The Leftovers that we're performing at Leicester Curve in October, so we'll be rehearsing for that. All in all, I’m looking forward to getting back to Notts.

East is East is at Nottingham Playhouse from Thursday 25 May - Saturday 10 June.

Nottingham Playhouse website

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