Smash show bucks diversity norms and actor says situation is improving with concerted focus…
By Suman Bhuchar
LATELY there has been a lot of talk about the lack of diversity in theatre, especially musical theatre, as highlighted in ‘Centre Stage’, a report published by the Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation.
However, one person who has confounded many expectations to pursue a career in musicals is actor, Irvine Iqbal currently appearing in ‘Aladdin’ at the Prince Edward Theatre, London.
The Disney musical adapted from the film has taken several years to reach the stage and Iqbal (pictured below) plays the role of ‘Sultan’, papa to the wilful, Princess Jasmine (Jade Ewen formerly of Sugababes ) who causes dad a headache when she refuses to agree to an arranged marriage to any number of suitable suitors.
Instead, she falls in love with the “worthless street rat” Aladdin, who spends his time stealing food from the market traders of the city of Agrabah.
Meanwhile the baddie, Vizier Jafar (Don Gallagher) is also cooking his own dastardly plans.
Iqbal allowedwww.asianculturevulture.com to pay him a visit in his dressing room at the theatre and discuss acting, singing, and diversity, among other things.
He is effusive about the show saying it’s going “really, really well” pointing out that it’s good wholesome entertainment: “The show speaks for itself in terms of theatrical performance and spectacle.
“We’ve got our magic carpet and our beautiful cave scene, so I think that’s the real value of what you get with Disney.”
Thomas Schumacher, Disney Theatrical Productions president explains in the show programme that it has taken “years of creative development, two try-our productions and many late nights of re-writing,” to create a “brand new stage musical”.
The show had been on Broadway for three years and arrived in London in June 2016.
Iqbal, who has been in the show since it opened, explains that he had to undergo a rigorous audition process before landing the part, even though he has had a regular career in musical theatre and was performing in Gurinder Chadha’s musical, ‘Bend it Like Beckham’ before that.
“I finished six auditions for this, going through the various stages where they sent me lots of music; send me lots of scenes for the Sultan and obviously playing the father on Beckham was good kind of continuity really because I am now playing a father in this.”
The process was tough because the stakes are high.
“Firstly, you audition for people on the creative team and the final stage is with the Broadway director who is Casey Nicholaw and a lot of the Disney production staff from here and the US and then they decide there and then.”
Iqbal was always interested in an acting career and studied for a Drama, Film and TV degree at Brunel University where he asked how he could improve his singing ability.
He had some supportive lecturers who recommended he get extra singing lessons and after completing his three years, he went on to do a one year course in musical theatre at the Royal Academy of Music led by a senior vocal coach and singing teacher named Mary Hammond – with a vast experience tutoring theatre performers in West End musicals and regional theatre.
He honed his craft working in fringe musical theatre and then it was when Andrew Lloyd Webber announced he was about to do a show called, ‘Bombay Dreams’ that Iqbal got his big professional break. “I played a featured part in that (Cricketer) and I understudied Dilip Tahil as Madan in that which was a father part.”
He jokes that at the age of 25, he landed a part of playing a ‘father’ and has continued thus ever since.
After a year in the show, he left when the cast changed, and went on to work in Birmingham and also landed parts on TV dramas such as ‘The Bill’, ‘Doctors’, and ‘Casualty’.
Later, when Gail Edwards an RSC director, and independent producer, Michael Ward got together to produce, ‘The Far Pavilions’, a period musical set in India during the Raj, and based on the bestselling book by MM Kaye. He was back in the West End at the Shaftesbury Theatre (April 2005).
Sadly, ‘The Far Pavilions’ closed soon after the London bombings (July 2005) leaving Iqbal to pursue a freelance career appearing in productions like ‘The Good Woman of Setzuan’ (2007, Leicester Haymarket, Kully Thiarai), ‘The Mahabharata’ (2007, Stuart Wood).
Between the years of 2011 – 2014 he worked with David Walliams (‘Little Britain’) on ‘Mr Stink’ (a musical adaption from Walliams’ book) and then on ‘David Walliams Live in the West End’ (2014) and created the role of ‘Raj’, a reoccurring character in David Walliams books.
Iqbal later did a post graduate in Law and also completed an MBA from Westminster University and then from 2012-2014 took part in several workshops for ‘Bend it Like Beckham’, where he created the part of ‘Mr Chopra’ (Teetu’s Dad,) and also covered the part for Mr Bhamra (Jess’, the main character’s dad, played by Tony Jayawardena).
As an actor, he has found that it’s important to understand ‘your core competencies’ and to know the “kind of parts you are going to be going up for?”
However, sometimes, this can create conflict “because you think you might be good at playing those parts but then people perceive you to be something else. Like for examples talking about fathers,” he said.
One of the points highlighted in the ‘Centre Stage’ Report is about lack of support for Black Asian Minority Ethnic (BAME) artists who wish to pursue a stage career. Here again, Iqbal has managed to buck the trend.
Both his parents were doctors and when they learned he wanted to be an actor, encouraged him to train and be the best.
Iqbal, who grew up in Bolton, attended Rossall School, a boarding school in Blackpool. He joined the school choir to get into “the teacher’s good books” because he got into some trouble in school days. A talented boy, he also played piano and trombone.
Iqbal would make a good role model for anyone from a BAME background wanting to get into musical theatre.
He is certainly aware that most of his work has been in “culturally specific” musical theatre.
“I mean it’s conscious to me. I think there is a long way to go but I see a positive change happening and it all boils down to the writing, the kind of material that is being produced at the moment.
“But besides that, I think there is an argument for proportionate representation – that people are represented fairly and proportionately in all productions.
“I think that’s one of the positive things Disney does, especially with ‘The Lion King’, and ‘Aladdin’. When you go and see a Disney show you see proportionate representation, he argues.
“They champion that in their productions, which is hugely different to other shows, and that’s the kind of reason why you get diverse audiences. They see people from their own backgrounds proportionately being represented on stage.”
All pictures (except top): ©Disney – Deen van Meer
‘Aladdin’, booking continues until September
Prince Edward Theatre, Old Compton St, London W1D 4HS
Monday – Saturday 7.30pm
Thursday & Saturday 2.30pm
Show is approximately 2.5 hours with an interval
Box office 0844 482 5151
In person Box office open
Monday – Saturday 10am to 7.45pm
Booking/More info: www.aladdinthemusical.co.uk