Dinnerladies serving up a feast of fun

Emma LeeNorwich Theatre Royal is serving up a slice of comedy as Victoria Wood's much-loved TV series Dinnerladies transfers to the stage. Emma Lee speaks to its stars, Andrew Dunn and Shobna Gulati.Emma Lee

It sounds like the perfect recipe for a great night out at the theatre. Victoria Wood's much-loved turn-of-the-millennium TV sitcom Dinnerladies has been whisked up into a stage show.

Overseen by Victoria herself, the production, which opens at Norwich Theatre Royal on Monday, June 29, stars two of the original small-screen cast members - Shobna Gulati, who reprises the role of ditsy Anita, and Andrew Dunn, who is stepping back into Tony's shoes.

And all the other favourite characters are back too - Bren, Dolly, Jean, Twinkle, caretaker Stan, Philippa from human resources and Bren's horrid mother Petula.

Despite running for only 16 episodes in 1999 and 2000, Dinnerladies, which is set in a Manchester canteen, is often hailed as an all-time classic.

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Since then both Andrew and Shobna have been resident in Coronation Street - Andrew has been seen in Weatherfield for the last two years as Janice Battersby's long-suffering partner Roger Stiles and Shobna is widely tipped to be returning to the role of Sunita Alahan.

The original Dinnerladies ensemble cast included Victoria Wood herself as Bren, Anne Reid, Julie Walters, Thelma Barlow, Celia Imrie, Maxine Peake and Duncan Preston.

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And Andrew says that the stage cast members bear an uncanny resemblance to their predecessors.

'Me and Shobna are doing it, then you've got all these actors who are amazing lookalikes and soundalikes. That was probably the weirdest thing when we started it,' he laughs.

'It's 10 years since we made the TV series, but it doesn't seem like 10 years. But when I started the stage show, it all came back very quickly.'

Father-of-one Andrew was born in Leeds and raised in Newcastle. He was bitten by the acting bug at a young age and pursued his dream, despite the reservations of his careers master who 'laughed out loud' at the idea. As a member of the acclaimed Hull Truck Theatre Company, Andrew was in John Godber's original productions of Up 'n' Under and Bouncers and his screen appearances include 55 Degrees North, the Bill, Midsomer Murders and Doctor Who.

The stage version of Dinnerladies is based on the plot of the second series of the show following Bren and Tony's reluctant love story.

Multi award-winning writer and performer Victoria Wood has had an input into casting, rehearsals, scripting, the set, music and costumes. Andrew believes that her gift for tapping into the vernacular has created something with an enduring and broad appeal.

'Victoria captures the ordinary person's language and twists it into this marvellous comic script. And because people recognise the characters, it's quite an easy thing for them to become involved in,' Andrew says.

'She will have you laughing for 10 minutes, then stick in this poignant moment, then she'll have you back laughing. There are two or three moments like that in the play, which is very much what happens in the TV series.'

Andrew and Shobna agree that the timing of Dinnerladies the stage show couldn't have been better.

'Everything's so grim on the news, I think people want to come and have two hours of comic relief,' says Andrew. 'That's one of the reasons I wanted to do it. I've had people saying 'It's so nice to have a laugh, every time you switch on the TV it's doom and gloom'. This show's great for that. It's very well written. Forget all the misery in the outside world for two hours.'

Shobna adds: 'It's been really well received actually. Audiences have loved it - they've often come up at the end and said 'I've needed a laugh'.

'It's a really good time for it. It's pretty miserable out there at the moment, so it's nice to have the theatres being packed with people. It's a really good feeling as an actor,' she says.

Dinnerladies was Shobna's big break. She studied at Darpana Performing Arts School, India, Manchester University, the Laban Centre, London, and Middlesex University.

A trained dancer, as well as her roles in Corrie and Dinnerladies, she also played a social worker in EastEnders, was in Dave Spikey's Magnolia for the BBC Comedy Playhouse, was a special guest in New Street Law and played staff nurse Nisha Clayton in the last ever series of Where the Heart Is.

She's been a panellist on Have I Got News For You, has been a guest holiday presenter on This Morning and has also been on Stars in Their Eyes and Soapstar Superstar.

Shobna also works as a theatre choreographer and a creative dance teacher and put her culinary skills to the test in the latest series of Celebrity Masterchef. And she's also a mum - she has a teenage son.

Is she enjoying playing Anita again?

'With experience behind you, you can just bring a little more to it. She just trips in. That's what she does,' Shobna laughs.

'I think it's very well-drawn comedy. The characters in Dinnerladies are so recognisable. They exist and are drawn off human experience. That makes them so believable. I think that's its appeal. There's romance in there too - the will-they-won't-they, it tugs the heart strings.'

As for future plans, Shobna says another tour of Dinnerladies is planned for autumn. And can she shed any light on the rumour that she is returning to Corrie? How would she feel about going back?

'It's still a rumour. There's negotiations, but it takes a long time. It was a wonderful experience. Absolutely fantastic. I've been really lucky. First of all doing Dinnerladies, with all those great comedy actors, and then Coronation Street.

'So, people are still talking. I don't know what they're talking about. They're talking about something. I love that people are talking,' she laughs.

t Dinnerladies is at Norwich Theatre Royal from Monday, June 29 to Saturday, July 4. Performances are at 7.30pm with matinees on the Wednesday and Saturday at 2.30pm. Tickets cost �5 to �19. Telephone the box office on 01603 630000 or book online at www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk

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