Sonia Jalaly’s one woman show Happy Birthday Without You is riding high on success. Winner of the 2014 Greater Manchester Fringe Newcomer Award and following a stint performing at Tricycle Theatre, it’s safe to say Jalaly hasn’t quite processed this herself. “Yeah, what the hell!” she laughs when I congratulate her on these achievements. Before Edinburgh I caught up with Jalaly, and we covered a wide range of topics from writing to fringe theatre to reality television.
Not just the star of Happy Birthday Without You, this is Jalaly’s debut play as a writer. She plays Violet Fox, a fictional performance artist who tells the story of her complicated relationship with her mother through a series of birthday anecdotes. Violet first came to life as a short sketch in the Manchester cabaret scene, and the reaction to the character meant Jalaly was inspired to write a whole play based on her. What Jalaly stresses is how many different influences she had during the creation of the play: “I have really benefited from it being a collaborative process, I could never just sit down and write a play”.
Directed by her close friend from drama school, Ruby Thompson, the comfortable relationship between the two meant they could workshop ideas with total freedom. “We say yes to everything and don’t judge at all,” Jalaly says, “we’ve devised little bits which has simply come from being in a room with people who have the same sense of humour as me”.
And the play does provide plenty of laughs, with Jalaly taking the character of Violet to the extremes:
“Violet tries to be everything: she tries to be a spoken word artist, and a Broadway star, a contemporary dancer, a mimic… She does everything but those things don’t go together”.
Yet behind the character and eccentricities is a very relevant social commentary on our obsession with autobiography. Inspired by the growing trend with autobiographical theatre, Jalaly explains how autobiography is everywhere; as bestsellers on book lists and in reality television. But Violet Fox is no Kim Kardashian, she explains she “thought it would be quite funny to look at a character who gets it horribly wrong”. Playing such a disastrous character has its perks, with any on-stage mishaps easily disguised. “A blessing of the character is that she’s a clown and gets everything wrong…which is good because things go wrong a lot!” Jalaly confesses.
As the only person on stage for an hour and ten minutes, I was curious where Jalaly finds her energy. She is quite literally tearing around the stage for the whole show, destroying the set as she goes along, and doesn’t have a single co-actor to fall back on.
“When I start the play I often feel really tired, and then just before I go on I dredge up the energy.
“What I’ve found is really important for me is being able to see the audience, I feel like the audience become the other character for me and whatever energy I need I can get from them”.
When switching from smaller venue’s to Tricycle Theatre, Jalaly got a fright when she stepped into the spotlight and couldn’t see beyond the light. “Eventually we had to tweak it and redirect the light so I could wander around and see everyone and I didn’t feel like I was on my own,” she laughs.
Performing at the Roundabout venue in Edinburgh presents a whole new set of challenges for Jalaly, as she will now be performing in the round, giving her no place to hide. Whilst there are plenty of challenges in fringe theatre, it also has a unique advantage:
“It gives you a little bit more freedom, because the stakes are lower. If you’re a new performer you have nothing to lose because no one has any particular expectations of you.”
To some extent, there is less pressure in fringe theatre, allowing performers to experiment and explore within their art. Does she feel pressure to repeat her Manchester success? “No one knows who I am when I go on at Edinburgh – it could be a flop or a massive success but either way I don’t have anything to lose”. Somehow, I think Violet Fox will soar in Edinburgh.
Happy Birthday Without You is at Roundabout @ Summerhall Aug 13-17, 19-24, 26-30. For tickets click here.