Panto virgin Meera Syal is set to star in Peter Pan at the Hippodrome later this month. Shelley Carter caught up with the actress and comedy genius as she prepared to take the plunge as the magical mermaid
Author, actress, writer, comedic genius – subjective, but we believe it – and now panto star, Meera Syal isn’t one to hide her talent under a bushel, but if we’re being truthful we were a bit surprised to see her trotting about in candy-coloured mermaid garb that the costume makers at Strictly might consider a bit much.
As a panto virgin, Meera got the call up for Peter Pan from QDOS – the people behind Annie in which she played the acerbic Miss Hannigan in the West End and who also produce the Hippodrome’s yearly panto. They asked her if she’d ever considered pantomime. Meera recalls: “The answer was ‘no actually I hadn’t’, but having worked with QDOS before I knew it would be great. It’s all new and I can honestly say I’ve never played a mermaid before!”
Being back in the Midlands for six weeks appealed to Meera as well as working with the best in the panto business including the brilliant and ever present Matt Slack as Smee along with this year’s famous faces, Jimmy Osmond as Captain Hook and Union J star Jaymi Hensley playing the title role. Flips and tricks will be provided by acrobatic troupe the Timbuktu Tumblers as the Neverlanders while death defying stuntman Sascha Williams plays the Drunken Pirate. Of the genre, Meera says: “Panto is a communal event – a family treat that you want to be memorable and it’s that thought that pushes you to do well. To be in a city I know with family and friends nearby is a bonus.” With scripts going back and forth and rehearsals about to begin when we spoke, Meera was excited to get started and happy to take the lead from the panto old guard in the form of director Michael Harrison.
BIT OF LUCK
Meera’s career has been a wondrously versatile mix of projects encompassing writing, TV and theatre. For instance, she wrote the 1993 screenplay Bhaji On The Beach as well as the award-winning Anita And Me. She played Goldie in BBC’s The Split, shone playing the title role of one woman show Shirley Valentine, has appeared in Doctor Who and co-wrote and starred in comedy juggernaut, Goodness Gracious Me which thrust Meera into the limelight along with the rest of the cast including husband, Sanjeev Bhaskar and opened doors. “Goodness Gracious Me was remarkable. It spanned generations in a wonderful way and certainly opportunities came after that.”
Nominated for a Bafta for her role as Sushila in International Emmy award-winning series, The Kumars At No 42 and awarded an MBE in 1997 and a CBE in 2015 for services to drama and literature, Meera isn’t short of fans. And while a bit of luck played its part in the early days, Meera also believes ‘you make your own luck’ to a certain extent. Her one woman show at university morphed into a stint at the Edinburgh Festival where a director who happened to be in the crowd that day saw her potential. The luck bit was the director being in the audience, but getting there, grafting and impressing was all Meera.
The love of performing and story-telling is something that gets Meera excited. “Reaching people through story telling is ephemeral, almost primal actually. It’s proven that during a live performance an audience’s heart beats and breathing synchronise which is incredible.” She argues that in these times of austerity, the arts come into their own. She explains: “Yes the country’s going through a hard time, but that’s when we need the arts the most. It lifts people.”
Meera feels Birmingham’s doing pretty well on that front. “What Roxana (Silbert) has done at the REP is remarkable. It feels like a hub. There’s a lot going on in the city and always something to see/experience.” And of the changes to Birmingham over the past few years, Meera’s impressed. “New Street station is gobsmacking. It used to feel like arriving in Badlands and the development on Broad Street is looking great. It’s been neglected for a long time.”
After decades of great work, Meera still feels a sense of insecurity about the next job. “I still audition and I’ve never lost those insecurities. It’s possibly heightened in this industry although I think most self-employed people probably feel it.” In terms of what’s next, Meera says: “Panto takes me through to February and then I don’t know. I’m working on writing projects, so they’ll be cooking nicely.”
For now, the only worry is how Meera might to go to the loo in that costume and at the time of writing, she still hadn’t worked that one out. First world problems and all that.