Singing, Dancing, Sexism, Racism: Sophiya Haque on Privates on Parade

This interview is an oldie from the Spoonfed archives which was first published on 11th December 2012. I wanted to post it on this blog not just because it’s an example of my writing but because I have so many mixed feelings about how I opened this article considering the note at the end. 

Sophiya Haque

Actress Sophiya Haque is steadily gathering a sparkly treasure chest of stories to tell the grand-kids in fifty years time. There’s the time she got to lie in the dark avoiding gunfire in the West End and singing Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire tunes on stage in the Michael Grandage production of Peter Nichols’ 1977 Privates on Parade, in which she stars alongside Simon Russell Beale.

The only woman in the show, Sophiya plays entertainer Sylvia Morgan, a mixed-race singer and dancer who performs for the British troops in Malaya in 1948. Away from home fighting the big bad Communists of South East Asia, the boys from straight-laced Blighty unleash all their camp, musical talents and form the South East Asia Song and Dance Unit that Sylvia soon joins.

We got a chance to talk to Sophiya about playing a fantastically fun role wrapped up in the sexism and racism of the era depicted.

You’ve been Puja in Wanted, Poppy Morales in Coronation Street and Senkhara in House of Anubis, Sylvia seems like a complete departure from your work so far …
She is! And she’s absolutely delightful. She’s a 28-30 year-old “Euroasian” – at least that’s how they refer to her – we’d call her mixed-race now. She lives in Calcutta in India, her father is a Welsh Fusilier and he was killed in Burma around 1945. The piece is set in 1948 and once her mother passes away, she’s slightly down on her luck and forced to entertain in the dancing clubs. But she is plucked away by Sergeant-Major Reg Drummond [Mark Lewis Jones] and he brings her on the tour with the Song and Dance Unit. Life’s going pretty good for her. I mean he’s very rough with her and he’s not particularly nice to her but in the grand scheme of things, she thinks she’s got it pretty good.

Is she as naïve as the young guys who’ve been sent away to war?
I don’t think she’s naïve at all, she’s seen too much. Women back in 1948 were most certainly second class citizens but I really don’t want her to be just a victim, she has an inner strength and a goal and she’s more than the things that are done to her.

Her goal is to go to England, she knows it from the movies and she’s got this meticulously idealistic idea of what it will be like. That’s her goal so she mingles with whoever she needs to mingle with in order to achieve it. She’d rather be idealistic, I mean, you can call that naïve I guess, but I see it as idealism and optimism and that makes her really lovely to play.

How significant is it that she’s mixed race?
Well, this is Peter Nichols story and a lot of what this play is based on really happened to him so there really was a woman in Calcutta (not in Malaya) and I guess she was half-Welsh half-Indian. But in the piece she’s terribly English actually, she’s surrounded by the British all the time. The piece is completely un-PC, it was written in the 1970s about 1948, so you can get offended, that’s just history. I guess if she was completely green or very very Indian, she wouldn’t have all those influences she needs to sing and dance with the unit and be appealing to the British soldiers.

Is there added pressure being the only woman?
Not at all! I don’t have to work hard to stand out! Sylvia is constantly correcting the soldiers, defending the good and telling them off for the bad saying don’t use language like that in front of me, and so she creates this area of self-respect. She’s quick to tell people off when they invade that space. She’s a real lady. She’s like the headliner really, she has fantastic entrances in the show and she’s the real thing in a piece full of drag queens. The boys are like “Wow, there’s a real woman! We got one!” She holds her own, I’m very proud of Sylvia actually.

What’s the best thing about playing her?
I love to sing and dance. For me, that side of it has been the most delightful thing. The Ginger Rogers- Fred Astair number is my favourite. I think most of my influences are from that era but I never ever thought in a million years I’d get to do it one stage but here I am in a role that requires different-looking people to perform period pieces, so with the musical element, I am one happy customer.

And the worst?
Getting the accent right is tough for me because I’m going for 1948 and what we know of those accents has been recorded. I’ve tried to avoid the movie star voice and go for what we hear in documentaries.

Privates on Parade runs at Noel Coward Theatre until 2nd March 2013

Sophiya Haque passed away on January 16th 2013 at the age of 41 having been diagnosed with cancer a few weeks earlier. The remaining performances of Privates on Parade were dedicated to her.

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