Irvine Iqbal talks Theatre, South Asian Talent & Inspiration

Irvine Iqbal is a South Asian actor who has featured in theatre, television and film. He chats exclusively to DESIblitz about theatre, talent and more.

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"We are being made invisible by the talent not being considered.”

The talented South Asian actor Irvine Iqbal made his Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) debut with the musical adaptation of David Walliams’ children’s book, The Boy in the Dress (2020).

Irvine Iqbal portrays the role of Raj, who is the only recurring character in David Walliams’ children’s books.

On the opening night of the show, Irvine performed in front of comedian and writer David Walliams, English songwriter Guy Chambers and English singer Robbie Williams.

Before making his RSC debut, Irvine has featured in numerous musical theatre productions like Broken Wings (Theatre Royal Haymarket), Branded (Criterion Theatre), Bend It Like Beckham (Phoenix Theatre) and many more.

Alongside musical theatre, Irvine has showcased his amazing talent in entertainment mediums such as film and television.

His film projects include The Cook, The Pinocchio Effect and Infinite Justice.

Meanwhile, his television projects involve Eastenders, Doctors, Casualty, The Bill and Spotlights and Saris.

Irvine’s latest body of work, The Boy in the Dress (2020) began on November 8, 2019, and will come to a close on March 8 2020.

Irvine Iqbal had an exclusive conversation with DESIblitz about The Boy in the Dress (2020), South Asian talent, inspirations and more.

Raj in The Boy in the Dress

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Irvine Iqbal stars as the Raj in The Boy in the Dress (2020). We asked him what attracted him to the role of Raj. He explained:

“Firstly, the representation factor was very important. There are not many British Asian characters in musical theatre.

“Also, David’s written him very well. He’s the only recurring character in all of David’s books and he’s very much a neutral character.

“I think for me it was the representation side of things is that there are not many characters in musical theatre that are South Asian characters but are also neutral standpoints in all of David’s stories.”

We continued to ask Irvine whether he came across any challenges while portraying the role of Raj. He said:

“The songs can be quite complicated. It’s kind of mathematical so you have to remember all the numbers and everything.

“He has to build up those relationships with the leading character and you can’t really lose with a guy who owns a sweet shop. He is the Willy Wonka of his time.”

The Boy in the Dress (2020) is an exceptional musical production which challenges the stereotypical portrayal of gender and sexuality.

Irvine explained why The Boy in the Dress (2020) relates to modern times. He said:

“I think it’s all about identity and being who you want to be.

“So, nowadays this is very much a hot subject with gender and sexuality, how our children are educated at school, how popular culture is influenced, the future generations.

“Our story, our main character resonates with everybody and being who you want to be whoever you are.”

In the production, the headteacher wore a dress while Raj wore a saree. We asked Irvine about the significance of this scene. He said:

“It’s to do with his background and character, if the teacher wears a dress then it would be obvious that Raj would wear a saree.”

Irvine recalled a message he received from a teacher about this specific scene. He said:

“There was a teacher who wrote to me, that there was this young Asian kid who’s normally quite quiet in class.

“Then when he watched the show and Raj came on in a saree he was jumped out of his seat in joy. The teacher had never ever seen that.

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“When I was growing up, we never saw any of this representation onstage. It was more English stories and the representation was mainly white actors.

“But now we have South Asian actors on stage that are representing. A lot of children can relate to it.”

On the opening night of the musical production, David Walliams, Robbie Williams and Guy Chambers were all present. Irvine said:

“The most exciting thing was that Robbie was there, David was there, Guy was there and all the big guns were there.

“It was launching David’s stories through The Royal Shakespeare Company. Opening night was very exciting with all the big celebrities in attendance.”

South Asian Talent

Undoubtedly, South Asian talent has increased in theatre over the years, yet it continues to be somewhat surppressed.

Irvine Iqbal spoke about the steady growth of South Asian talent in musical theatre. He said:

“We are a surplus of talent, there is a lot of South Asian talent in musical theatre actors.”

However, Irvine also acknowledged that South Asian talent continues to struggle with finding acceptance in mainstream theatre. He said:

“The problem is we’re not getting seen for more of the mainstream shows like the Les Miserables or The Phantom of the Opera and these shows have been going on for thirty years.

“Shows like Bombay Dreams and Bend it like Beckham have been going on for the last fifteen years.

“We have a very strong talent base that is all trained but we’re not being seen for all these shows.”

“So, when a show like The Boy in the Dress (2020) comes along that represents multi-cultural Britain then it’s a good thing.

“I think some of it is ignorance and some of it is to do with not opening eyes elsewhere because it’s not difficult to look elsewhere.

“These shows have been established, Bombay Dreams, Bend it like Beckham, The Far Pavilions, Something about Jamie these are all established shows.

“It’s not as though we can’t be seen, we’re visible but we are being made invisible by the talent not being considered.”

Favourite Medium of Entertainment

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Irvine Iqbal has worked in different mediums of entertainment from theatre, television to film. We asked him which was his favourite. He replied:

“I think musical theatre. I enjoy it the most because it has its biggest challenge through the process of rehearsals.

“Even before rehearsals, musicals nowadays go through a workshop process where we test the music and test all the characters to see where it would work, whether the narrative works.

“So, musical theatre has a very comprehensive process before it comes to the stage.”

Irvine continued to explain the process behind The Boy in the Dress (2020). He said:

“With The Boy in the Dress (2020) we had several workshops beforehand just to make sure that the story was working and it was coming across.

“I think it was the challenge of going through all of that and with six to eight week of rehearsals prior to that working with the cast and creative team and bringing the story to life.

“Normally with television, you have your script and you rock up on the day and you know your lines but I think with musicals the process is a bit longer.

“With shows like this that involve children you have three sets of kids that are playing the characters so the process takes a little longer because they have to organise the schedules. In the end, it was about an eight-week process.”

Irvine Iqbal went on to explain why The Boy in the Dress (2020) was different from the previous productions he has featured in. He expressed:

“The show is very much human story, it is a modern-day multi-cultural story. A lot of the other shows I’ve done are fictional stories but this represents everybody today and multi-cultural Britain.

“I think that’s the most important thing, that’s what resonates with everybody.”

Inspiration

Everyone has people they look up to and admire in their field of work. We asked Irvine Iqbal who inspired him in his acting journey. He stated:

“For me growing up, I felt shows like West Side Story and those were the kind of musicals that influenced me.

“Actors wise with film, people like Al Pacino, (Robert) De Niro, with television from Only Fools and Horse, David Jason.

“Growing up I used to watch a lot of Lenny Henry and in the early 80s, he was very much a massive influence.

“Also, the Goodness Gracious Me people as well Mira, Sanjeev, Kulwinder and all of them.

“Back then there weren’t many people who were representative so definitely the Goodness Gracious Me people.”

Support Network

Unfortunately, South Asian parents are stereotyped as being controlling and believing that the best professions are being a dentist, doctor, accountant or lawyer.

As a result of this mindset, it is difficult for their children to break from this imposed mould.

However, Irvine Iqbal was supported by his family who encouraged him to make a career from his talent. He explained:

“My parents were very supportive of me doing what I wanted to do.”

“You get this cliché with Asian parents that everybody wants to be a doctor or an accountant or a lawyer.

“But I think if you have a talent and you are good at what you do, that talent should be nurtured and then you start the process of going into drama school and training your talent and fine-tuning it at a professional status.

“I have been 100% supported by my family. There has never been any kind of negativity of ‘you can’t do this or you can’t do that.’ Be happy with what you do.”

As a successful South Asian actor, Irvine is inundated with numerous messages seeking advice. He said:

“I get loads of messages from South Asian actors who are starting at drama school. I get hundreds of messages asking me for advice asking ‘what kind of song shall I choose?’ I am inundated with messages all the time.

“It is important that people are thinking about it and what they want to do and irradicating those cliches of doctor, dentist, accountant and lawyer.

“People have got talents. There are so many people in our industry that are so talented but a lot of their talent goes unnoticed. There is a massive group of us.

“I wrote an article, ‘Crazy Pitch Asians’ (2019), we have loads of people in this industry that are so talented but are not getting seen.”

Need for Theatre Appreciation

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Unfortunately, musical theatre is often overshadowed by other mediums of entertainment like films.

Irvine Iqbal explained why musical theatre is somewhat overlooked. He said:

“I think sometimes a lot of the focus is on Bollywood but we have got a massive talent base in this country of people and not just film actors. Sometimes the focus is on people like Dev Patel and TV and film people.

“But with a young, experienced and emerging group in theatre and the discipline is different because we have to be able to sing as well and sing at a very good standard.

“Asian people are not renowned for that rather it is just Bollywood and dancing but we have to sing as well as act.”

We asked Irvine why he thinks musical theatre is not typically recognised amongst South Asians. He said:

“I think it’s changing habits. Bollywood is very simple. People can just sit down and watch a movie. Bollywood is very black and white.

“When people watch a movie they go to the cinema and spend money and are guaranteed six to seven dance numbers, a beautiful hero and heroine.

“But with musical theatre, the story is more thought-provoking. People need to sit there and listen to the story and is more intellectual.

“There are also two other Asian actors, Alim Jayda and Cilla (Silvia). We are quite heavily represented in The Boy in the Dress (2020) which is nice.

“I mean how many musicals do you see that have three to four characters from South Asian backgrounds. It is very rare.”

Future Projects

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Since 2015, Irvine Iqbal has been working tirelessly in the theatre productions, Bend it like Beckham (Phoneix Theatre) and Aladdin – The Musical.

We asked him whether he has any future projects in the pipeline to which he replied:

“I did Aladdin (Prince Edward Theatre) before this in the West End and (Bend It Like) Beckham (Phoenix Theatre) was before that. So, since 2015 I have been working and now I want to take time off.

“We finish on March 8 (2020) and there are rumours of transfer with this and I think it will transfer because its got the legs and it is very much something the West End needs.

“So I will be more than happy to come back to this.”

Message to Aspiring South Asian Actors

Having achieved great success with his various musical theatre performances we asked Irvine what advice he would give to young aspiring South Asian actors. He explained:

“A mixture of preparation and hard work are the most important things. I did a Drama degree and then went to the Royal Academy of Music afterwards.

“Having finished at the Royal Academy and got an agent I was quite lucky because that’s when Bombay Dreams was auditioning back in 2002.

“So for twenty years ago, it was good coming in. I think a lot of it is to do with hard work and preparation.”

Being a successful actor in various mediums of entertainment, Irvine Iqbal is truly an inspiration to many aspiring South Asian actors.

His appreciation for musical theatre is certainly heart-warming. The Boy in the Dress (2020) allowed Irvine to showcase his amazing talent and zest for acting.

Not to forget his incredible singing voice which commanded the attention of the audience.

Meanwhile, The Boy in the Dress continues to be showcased in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until March 8, 2020.

To watch Irvine Iqbal in his Raj avatar, book tickets by calling the number 01789 331 111. Alternatively, visit the website.

Ayesha is an English graduate with an aesthetic eye. Her fascination lies in sports, fashion and beauty. Also, she does not shy away from controversial subjects. Her motto is: “no two days are the same, that is what makes life worth living.”