UP-AND-COMING actors Rishi Manuel and Zaynah Ahmed make their panto debut with Aladdin, a story they said holds a “special place” in the hearts of south Asian communities.
In recent years, Disney has been on a mission to venture into new cultures with films such as Wish, Encanto, Raya and the Last Dragon, Coco and Moana.
It was 31 years ago that Aladdin broke the mould of the archetypal Disney princess, with the character of Jasmine becoming the first princess of colour from the iconic film studio.
Aladdin was set in a hybrid Middle Eastern-south Asian world and featured predominately characters from an ethnic minority background.
Manuel, 23, who is of mixed Gujarati and English heritage, told Eastern Eye, “It’s one of the films we all grew up with, one we could relate to.
“There’s so many different stories out there that need a place to be told with the correct representation. It’s important for people, who may not have knowledge of these cultures, to go and see shows like these in the theatre and be introduced to a world of different things that they may not have seen before.”
Ahmed, also 23, added: “It (Disney’s Aladdin) was a real change. When kids were dressed up as princesses at parties, to see one of them look a bit more like you, it was so exciting.
“I always wanted to be princess Jasmine. I still want to go to fancy-dress parties as princess Jasmine now.”
Manuel plays Wishy, Aladdin’s brother who was specifically written for the panto adaption of the story, while Ahmed is part of an ensemble who are also understudies to the leads.
The duo are part of a diverse cast that includes Natasha Lewis (This England, EastEnders) as Abby-na-zaaar!, Ruth Lynch (Aladdin, Mother Goose, Hackney Empire) as Spirit of the Ring, and Fred Double (Wuthering Heights, Wise Children) as Aladdin.
Ahmed said it was important to have actors from different backgrounds, especially as the panto is staged at the Hackney Empire.
“Hackney is a multicultural community. The audience is going to be made up of people of all backgrounds and many from the south Asian community. It’s important they are able to see representations of themselves on the stage,” she said.
She reflects on her own personal experience of seeing the likes of Shobna Gulati and Lauren Patel in the hit West End play, Everybody’s Taking About Jaimie.
“I went to see Everybody’s Talking About Jamie and seeing the character of Pritti Pasha (Lauren Patel) a Muslim character on stage, I thought it was really exciting. It’s a role that is very much similar to my own heritage.”
Manuel added: “It’s vital these characters can be from any culture, any background and we’re seeing that in the show, which is great. We’re not being put into boxes and categorised and told “you can only play certain characters” – it’s actually really refreshing to see.”
While panto is known for being fun and immersive, Manuel and Ahmed admitted that it also brings a set of uniquely “nerve-wracking” challenges.
“There’s a lot breaking the fourth wall and talking to the audience,” said Ahmed. “The audience interaction makes them feel a bit more part of the show, rather than just sitting and watching; however, it can be daunting because we have to build that rapport with the audience.”
Ahmed has the added pressure of being an understudy so she could potentially end up playing one of the leads – Spirit of the Ring, the Genie character from the film versions.
“I am hoping that we stay in our roles. I should be in the ensemble the whole time,” laughed Ahmed.
“I’ve learned all the lines, the dances, the movements that she (Spirit of the Ring) does – just in case I do have to step in.”
Manuel, who performed at the National Youth Musical Theatre, said: “I love the music and dance element of panto. It’s so different to what we’re used to as theatre actors.
“I did quite of lot musical theatre when I was younger – I found a lot of joy in it, especially when I spent time abroad as it was a fun way of getting to meet other people and learning languages by doing musical theatre with lots of different people and different cultures,” added Manuel, who spent time in the Canary Islands and learned to speak Spanish and Gujarati as well as English.
Manuel hopes to see young children at the show, revealing that going to panto as a child was something he cherished.
“I used to go every year with my dad. It was a real big part of my childhood. I always remember leaving feeling really happy and laughing a lot. And, not just me, I remember even my dad, a fully grown adult, laughing and having a really good time,” he said.
“It’s a tradition for a lot of families, to come and see a pantomime every year. It’s a lovely opportunity to introduce children to the world of theatre as it’s so interactive – they will absolutely love it.”