When I meet Shobna Gulati in a Dublin hotel, I notice people are looking around and murmuring. It's not just that she's strikingly good looking at 48 years of age, but because she's so instantly recognisable as poor, unlucky Sunita Alahan from Coronation Street, despite leaving the role behind for good in 2013.
here's something about soap actors that makes us feel as if we know them. Recently, Eastenders' Natalie Cassidy was quoted as saying that soap stars are more famous than film actors, something that was greeted with scorn by many. But in a lot of ways, it's true – these are the people that are beamed into our homes several nights a week, those who we connect with when we're eating our dinner or hanging out with family. They're as familiar to us as our own neighbours, which might go some way to explain as to why it can be so tough for many soap actors to break away from the genre.
For Shobna, leaving Coronation Street meant an opportunity for a massive change of direction – from the cobblestones to singing on stage. “After I finished Corrie, I sat down with my agents and they asked me what I wanted to do – TV, theatre, lots of things. I said that I really wanted to do a musical and their response was 'can you sing?'” she laughs. “Of course I can, I wouldn't have suggested it if I couldn't! It just so happened that there was a new guy working there who was a specialist in that department and everyone thought it was a good idea. But I wanted to go on tour rather than perform in the West End”.
Much to her delight, after several rounds of auditions Shobna secured the part she had her heart set on – that of Tanya in the touring production Mamma Mia. The character the best friend of protagonist Donna, a middle-aged man-eater immortalised in the movie version by Christine Baranski. Shobna is set to play the role at Dublin's Bord Gais Energy Theatre this May having previously made various stops around the UK.
“I knew that there was a role in the show for a glamorous man-eater type who got to wear lycra, so when casting came around for this year's tour, I went through various stages of auditioning. I sang You're So Vain the first time, because I thought it was sassy like Tanya. My best friend Sue Devaney is in the show playing Donna's other best friend Rosie, so when she re-signed for this tour as well, it all worked out.”
With many soap stars going from serial dramas to theatre in the form of pantomime, Shobna is delighted to have made the transition to musical theatre. “The songs of ABBA have a three octave range, so it's challenging but my voice is holding up. I knew the lyrics from growing up, but I needed to learn how to sing them properly. It has to be so precise and accurate, otherwise it's karaoke.”
And it seems the life of a soap actor lends itself well to that of a touring theatre performer in terms of long hours. “Mamma Mia is actually tougher than Corrie because it's more physical. You might see us on stage for two and a half hours, but in reality there have been countless hours of rehearsing and choreography. And I can't have all the things I like to eat, red wine and the likes. But I have a glass every so often, on special occasions.”
Shobna was diagnosed coeliac in 2009, so a good diet is essential for her. When I ask her what the secret of her incredibly youthful skin and figure are, she insists that it's all down to eating well. “You have to eat properly. It's not boring, I eat everything I want as long as it has no gluten! I dream of finding a crusty sandwich with ham and coleslaw that's gluten free – that sort of thing used to make me so ill, but I'll never forget the taste of it! But look, eating properly doesn't mean denying yourself, it means thinking of it in a different way. You must be comfortable with it, because when you're not it begins to have adverse effects. I had eating disorders when I was a teenager, and I had to re-train my mind to feel comfortable with food, and with being around it.”
Shobna also works out twice a week with a personal trainer, and swears by hair supplements to maintain her famous black mane. It was widely reported that she was suffering from hair loss after leaving Corrie, something she confirms. “I experienced stress related hair loss, also affected by my previous eating disorders. I think I was under a huge amount of strain in the storyline that led to my departure in Corrie, and outside of it. It takes its toll.” She fishes in her bag to show me her preferred brand – Viviscal, also used by Ronan O'Gara. “This isn't a media personality endorsing a product, I swear by it!” she enthuses.
The storyline she speaks of in Coronation Street culminated in her character's tragic death – Sunita was murdered by former lover Karl after their affair went sour. Was walking away from Corrie's famous cobbles once again difficult? “I do miss it sometimes, but not the orange polo neck she always wore!” Shobna laughs. “I miss the people. Kate Ford, who play Tracy Barlow, was and is my best friend. I asked her to be my roomie when we first met, because we just clicked. I have to be eternally grateful for Corrie. I signed for three months, ended up there for five years. Then after a three year break, I went back for another four years.”
Understandably a massive part of her life, I wonder what drew her back the second time? “Circumstances personally. I wanted to revisit Sunita and have some closure – and she got closure – she died! There's no going back, bang goes my pension!” she laughs. “But actually, you never say never in soap. Like JR Ewing in Dallas waking up in the shower – Sunita's first ever scene was in the shower!” she says, with a wicked grin.
Shobna has been working as an actress for 28 years, and now her 20-year old son Akshay has announced he wants to follow in her footsteps. What was her advice for him? “I've told him to grow a hard skin and to stick with it, to give it his best shot at every audition, and consider each one an opportunity. Was I nervous when he told me he wanted to act? Ooh, yeah. In 28 years, it hasn't always been like this, in a beautiful hotel speaking with you! I'm a single mum, [acting] has always been about supporting him. I don't know what else to do to pay the bills, it's just something that's in me. Acting for me has always been about the work, being able to change the car, or even buy a car, because of getting a job. I'm so grateful for my career, but I've worked so hard. Never mind knocking on doors, I've ripped through them!”
At 48, Shobna is currently single, having ended her last relationship with a man 17 years her junior in 2013.”I'm never looking for love, I'm not waiting for it to find me,” she admits. “If it does, great, but I'm not really bothered! I have a son, and enough interesting things in my life already. If there's a man that wants to add to that interest of life, then you know, I shall welcome him with open arms.”I tell her she might have a queue when she arrives in Dublin, and she laughs. “I absolutely adore men – in that way, this part is perfect for me!”
On the way out, we see Louis Walsh in the hotel bar and the two greet each other warmly. Between him and the ABBA songs, I enquire if she's a fan of the Eurovision. “Oh yes, everybody loves Eurovision, I can't think why you wouldn't!” Although I doubt we'll see Shobna on stage seeking douze points any time soon, she's a lady most definitely bitten by the musical bug. “Yes, I want to do every single one now. I'd love to be in Wicked, perhaps play the um, more mature witch. And the bar lady in Les Miserables would be great!” For now though, we'll have to be content with watching her belting out Does Your Mother Know, wearing lycra and chasing toy boys on stage.