"It flips stereotypical Asian dynamics"
Happy Birthday Sunita is a thrilling rollercoaster ride through decades of unresolved family matters in this revitalised rendition of the immensely popular 2007 play by Hollyoaks star Harvey Virdi.
Presented by the Rifco Theatre Company, this show has a fresh infusion of formidable female leads and a razor-sharp script.
Happy Birthday Sunita delves deep into the intricate dynamics of the Johal clan within a post-Brexit and post-pandemic world.
Charting the uncharted territories of their personalities and interconnections, this adaptation stars Divya Seth Shah and Bhawna Bhawsar.
Lastly, the rising star from west London, Rameet Rauli, shines as Harleen, Tejpal’s high-maintenance daughter-in-law.
Completing this stellar cast are the gifted actors Devesh Kishore and Keiron Crook.
When the Johals assemble in their newly renovated kitchen for Sunita’s surprise party, it gradually becomes apparent that each family member has been wearing a façade.
Explosive confrontations erupt, causing their masks to slip. Secrets are laid bare, and the truth behind their relationships unravels.
As each character faces their personal truth, the family finds themselves standing at a critical crossroads, forced to choose how to live authentically.
We caught up with two of the stars from the cast – Divya Seth Shah and Devesh Kishore.
Divya hails from India and is known for her captivating performances in both the film and television industry.
She recently shared the screen with the legendary Amitabh Bachchan in the Bollywood film Goodbye.
In the realm of television and film, Devesh has made his mark with an impressive array of recent credits.
Most notably, he has portrayed a recurring character in the captivating series Last Light and graced the screen with guest appearances in acclaimed shows like Casualty and Echoes.
To get a glimpse into why Happy Birthday Sunita is selling out and the joys of working on such a production, the duo spoke to DESIblitz to tell us all the juicy gossip.
Divya Seth Shah
What were your inspirations for getting into acting?
I grew up in an art and culture-infused family.
My mother is an actor and my primary influence to becoming one.
I always loved performing and always just wanted to be an actor.
Can you tell us about your character Tejpal and what she’s like?
Tejpal is such an amazing woman; feisty, loving and good a sense of humour.
She laughs easily and is able to overcome her situation with courage and truth.
When preparing for the role, I always follow my gut instinct and my treasure trove of memories and observations.
“I trust the instinct that follows whilst I read a character.”
Also, Pravesh Kumar’s direction and gentle guidance has helped me deeply reflect on and better understand Tej’s character.
What makes ‘Happy Birthday Sunita’ so unique?
Happy Birthday Sunita is one of those works, where you think you are just following a normal evening of a family…
Then wham! you are cajoled, shocked, and excited.
The show has revelations and reflections that make you think about yourself, your family, and the choices you have made in your life.
It’s so unique in the messages we try to get across but don’t shy away from the thrills and laughter of theatre.
Were there any challenges you had to overcome to play Tejpal?
I wouldn’t say there were any challenges per se.
We are all a couple of degrees away from the characters we play.
“In another universe, Divya could have had Tejpal’s trials. I feel her and I love her.”
Until we started performing, even though our director told me to be prepared for it, I had no idea of the magnitude of the effect this play would have.
At every show, there are women and men who are goaded into thinking about the lives they live, the loneliness they face and the sheer injustice of their situations.
It is so moving.
And all it needs sometimes is for you to face your truth – which is what this play does.
You’ve starred alongside Amitabh Bachchan. How was that?
Mr. Bachchan forever. I can watch him on screen in everything he does.
He still arrives punctually, works hard, and never takes anything for granted.
Those are the qualities I have imbibed. Performing is the same in any medium.
I just love my being an actor. The primary difference of the stage is that you feel the audience and their energy, and your feedback is instant.
How do you want viewers to feel after seeing the play?
I’m delighted you laughed and enjoyed yourself.
“You wept and felt uncomfortable as well.”
But, if our play made you think, made you question, made you gentler with those you now see, then we are home!
Firstly, where did your love for acting and theatre come from?
To be honest, I think it was something I picked up doing in my spare time.
I did it at school university and then social and amateur clubs.
I also tried to find courses I could get onto to learn more and network.
With this job, you’re constantly learning so the more you’re exposed to different elements and people, the better your knowledge and understanding gets.
What attracted you to playing Nav?
I was attracted to the character having a substantial journey and arc.
Nav is such an integral part of the story.
“It’s always good when you get to play a part that’s so expansive.”
I could really get stuck into this role and dig my teeth at his personality and the way he behaves.
What’s been the favourite and most challenging thing about the role?
This is a tough one!
I think my favourite thing is the multiple and varied relationships Nav has with all the other characters in the play.
The most challenging was tying the turban!!!
But all in all, it’s been so enjoyable to work on this. Especially with all the other actors.
How was your reaction when reading the script?
It was super interesting in how it flips stereotypical Asian dynamics.
For example the ‘Asian’ narrative of parents holding kids back to explore how it can be the kids holding the parents back.
It explored issues relating to gender and age demographic that usually don’t get addressed.
So seeing that was unique and the way it was written was fun and engaging.
“You get to see themes like family, abandonment, self-love, and patriarchy.”
They’re important to people personally if they happen to resonate with them.
More generally, they shine a light on the suffering of our fellow humans that we may not have known about.
Definitely come and see the show for a great night out.
Do you think South Asian representation in theatre is improving?
I’m sure there is more representation.
But I’m also sure more can be done.
I’ve always just focused on what opportunities I can find for myself and how hard I work at them.
These are the only things I can control.
Through an exploration of traditional gender roles, societal conformity, and ageism, Happy Birthday Sunita offers all the ingredients for a gripping tale of a family on the verge of collapse.
Amidst unexpected guests, butter-free roti, and skeletons in the closet, the Johal family refuses to let the chaos dampen their spirits.
So don your finest party attire and prepare yourself for an epic saga centered around samosas, as Rifco Theatre Company breathes new life into this riotous comedy.
Grab your tickets here.