"The whole play is about integration and adaptation"
In a world where theatre often serves as a mirror to society, Vikash Bhai is part of one production that is gearing up to reflect the immigrant experience like never before.
The world premiere of The Foreigners’ Panto, a political comedy with songs, is set to take the stage, promising both uproarious laughter and poignant contemplation.
This groundbreaking show, created by Middle Eastern theatre maker Shani Erez, offers a unique perspective on the lives of immigrants in the UK, told through their own eyes.
At the helm of this extraordinary ensemble is Vikash Bhai, a seasoned actor known for his remarkable performances in Crossfire, McMafia, and the BAFTA-nominated Limbo.
In The Foreigners’ Panto, Bhai takes on the role of Lord Villain, leading a cast of first and second-generation immigrants in a spirited exploration of British culture and identity.
With a riveting narrative, original songs, and the timeless charm of audience participation, this show is set to challenge perceptions and celebrate diverse voices in the arts.
As we delve into this captivating world of theatre and cultural exploration, we had the privilege to sit down with Vikash Bhai himself.
In this exclusive interview, he shares his insights, experiences, and the profound significance of The Foreigners’ Panto in today’s ever-evolving world.
What inspired you to pursue a career in the performing arts?
I think from the height of about 2ft I was involved in school performances, encouraged by teachers throughout the years from early years and well into the big school.
Inspiration most likely came from watching Robin Williams and Jim Carey movies.
And of course, watching Aamir Khan, Anil Kapoor, Anupam Kher, and other Bollywood greats.
I love all mediums of performing and some aspects remain the same when working on stage, TV, etc.
Working on the text, making choices about your character and their relationship to others and the world they’re in is riveting.
One of the main differences is the ability to try things out in rehearsals.
If it’s not quite working, go away, have a night’s sleep, and try something new the next time you revisit the scene.
There is a little more time to play when working on stage, which is not always a luxury afforded to working on screen.
Do you have any role models who have impacted you?
I think there are far too many to list.
Probably most of the actors who have appeared in James Lipton’s “Inside the Actors Studio” interviews.
“Their experiences offer great insights and advice relating to the craft and the business itself.”
I can’t remember where I heard this one, but someone once told me, ‘keep a pair of comfy shoes with you and step into them when you need a reset’.
Can you tell us more about your character in ‘The Foreigners’ Panto’?
Lord Villain is an ambitious, well-meaning, Mayor of a city, who may or may not have leanings toward world domination.
I’m also playing the character in the play who is playing Lord Villain.
He is part of the community theatre group that is putting on the “Panto” but he’s not entirely up to scratch on his Panto conventions.
With a little encouragement though, he finds his way.
All of the cast are playing as one of the “community theatre group members” who all also take on the role of at least one of the panto characters.
Suzy Kohane as Benedict Bumbercatch, Fabrizio Matteini as Dame Foreign, Gabriel Paul as John Constable, Aliya Roberts as Zara Foreign, Leo Elso as Maestro, and Amanda Vilanova as “The Cow”.
The back and forth between the “Panto” and community theatre characters and the exchanges between the members of the group make for some heated and sometimes comically awkward moments!
How do you relate to the immigrant experience in the play?
I grew up in Leicester and went to a school with students from many different backgrounds, cultures, and faiths.
Both first and second-generation immigrants from different parts of the world would learn from each other and about each other.
“It created a community that celebrated one another.”
Similarly, in our play, our characters are of different backgrounds coming together, learning and celebrating the Panto experience, whilst sharing their immigrant experience.
The audience will have a lot of fun and will be sharing the same experience.
The play is set in a 1950s office block. How does this contribute to the narrative?
So, we are currently doing rehearsals and we’ve seen the amazing model of our set, designed by Sammy Dowson and Fiona McKeon, who are also designing our costumes and props.
The office block sits as a wonderful backdrop to the community theatre-style set, which in turn lends itself to the idea that our would-be Pantomimers have made this themselves.
Elephant & Castle is hugely diverse and also known to be the heart of one of the largest Latinx communities.
The building can be seen the moment you come out of the tube and sits in the heart of Elephant & Castle and is used by artists living in Southwark and further afield from all different backgrounds.
The building once was a brewery, later a People’s Plus office, and now a theatre – an ever-adapting space, changing – Like the city itself.
How does the play shed new light on Britishness?
One of the things that has been an eye-opener for me, in Shani’s play, is how much of what we might think of as Britishness is enjoyed and embraced by Brits and foreigners alike.
So much of what we think of as quintessentially British actually has its roots in all the cultures that have come to Britain over the centuries.
The great irony of the play is that a group of ‘foreign’ people are learning about a British staple – the Pantomime – which is actually based on stories and traditions from all over the world!
The Foreigners’ Panto is not your average Panto, although we do have many of the usual suspects.
It’s the satirical elements that Shani Erez has written that slice through some of the absurd panto esc moments that really make this feel like something we’ve not seen before.
The challenges are difficult to pre-empt and might be something we understand retrospectively.
One challenge might be how we strike the balance between the two.
We have a team of three amazing directors – Shani Erez, Sarah Goddard, and Marianne Badrichani whom I have absolute trust to guide us through any of the challenges that come our way.
Not to mention we also have our movement choreographer Tara Young and our musical director Leo Elso who have also got their eyes on the ball.
“It’s a strong team, with a strong cast and I’m very excited about the weeks ahead.”
Humour is great armour for the struggles in life and a great connector between people of all cultures.
Poking fun at authority is a great unifier for many too.
Panto always comments on current affairs in some way – we just do it in a bigger way by putting a spotlight on the immigrant experience in the UK.
In this show, there are many levels for the audience to feel engaged in – by using laughter, tension is reduced so you can then really engage with challenging material alongside the humour.
Do immigrants staging a British pantomime mirror cultural adaptation?
This one might be a little outside of my wheelhouse, as I say we’re only a few days in and I’m guessing the answer to this will become clearer over the coming days.
For now, I’ll say, perhaps it’s about the community that is built and comes together by walking in someone else’s shoes.
The concept of what we know as panto is bricolage – it has constantly been borrowed from other cultures and influenced by what is going on in the public sphere.
The whole play is about integration and adaptation in that it tells the story of a group of people exploring how the British see themselves.
Many people with an immigrant background will recognise their experiences reflected in the play and also there’ll be many opportunities to laugh.
It is a clever and knowing script that pokes fun at Britishness in a way that suits the British self-deprecating humour.
How does the cast engage with the audience during the show?
It wouldn’t be a Panto without some audience participation, right? ‘Oh no, it wouldn’t! Oh yes, it’…anyway…
Their participation is what makes all the pantos enjoyable for both the audience and the performers.
As to how the cast is engaging them…well now that would be telling, wouldn’t it? ‘Oh no it…’
The audience is the final and very important part of the show – they are almost a character themselves.
“It will be different every night because of their reactions – so come along and see it!”
Be part of it!
Live theatre – there’s nothing else like it!
What advice would you give to aspiring actors?
Do other things that you find fulfilling, be that hiking, knitting, baking, reading, martial arts, whatever it might be, things outside of the theatre world that nourish and enrich your life.
Practically speaking, find a side job you enjoy going back to, if possible.
Check in maybe once or twice a year, maybe more, maybe less, but check in with yourself, do you still want a career as an actor?
Don’t be too hard on yourself, there can be long periods of no work and periods of work that go on for a long time.
Things can change quickly either way. The progress isn’t always linear.
The Foreigners’ Panto emerges as a beacon of thought-provoking and comical commentary on the immigrant experience in the UK.
This innovative production, brought to life by a remarkable cast led by Vikash Bhai, invites audiences to laugh, sing, and reflect on the multifaceted nature of Britishness.
As the show prepares to open its doors to the world, we encourage everyone to seize the opportunity to witness this groundbreaking theatrical experience.
The Foreigners’ Panto promises to be a journey, inviting us all to reconsider what it means to be British and to embrace the rich mosaic of immigrant voices.
Find out more about the show here.