Two nations, nothing alike in resources, where we lay our scene…..A nine-year-old girl, already a “theatre nerd” doing ballet and singing and watching every play she could in the United States, dreaming of playing on Broadway or the West End, moves to Sri Lanka with her family. What are the odds she can “make it”? [...]


A West End dream comes true

Roshani Abbey, a familiar face to many local theatre enthusiasts lands a plum role in ‘&Juliet’ - a modern musical now drawing the crowds in London

Can’t stop smiling:Roshani making her West End debut in ‘&Juliet’

Two nations, nothing alike in resources, where we lay our scene…..A nine-year-old girl, already a “theatre nerd” doing ballet and singing and watching every play she could in the United States, dreaming of playing on Broadway or the West End, moves to Sri Lanka with her family. What are the odds she can “make it”?

“Sure, you can come up with some ‘what ifs’, but looking back, it seems everything went well,” grins Roshani Abbey, 25-year-old Sri Lankan actor (the protagonist of our scene) who in June this year, was cast as ‘Lucy’ in the West End musical ‘&Juliet’ – a contemporary sequel to Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’.

“The night we opened on September 24,  I was grinning so wide that my jaw started hurting a little! It felt fantastic to have had my West End debut – it did feel like another step on the journey I’ve been working for my whole life,” she tells the Sunday Times.

Believe it or not, she even played the lead role of Juliet last Monday and Tuesday because the actress playing Juliet and the 1st cover were both ill!

“I’ve loved understudying Juliet while being in the ensemble every day – and I love getting to dance so much in this show. Normally an understudy will have an easier time in the ensemble and not dance as much because the lead doesn’t have to dance as much – but here everyone dances a lot and I really enjoy being so busy in the show! I also am the 1st cover for Lady Capulet who has some features lines and singing and I do that in the show while doing most of my ensemble stuff too,” she says.

capturing the moment backstage

Roshani is the grand niece of Sita and Sali Parakrama, two well-known thespians from Sri Lanka’s golden age of art and theatre. While the relationship is through her mother Shanez Gunatilaka (her father Robert Abbey is Australian), she is quick to point out that both her parents and her whole extended family were very much interested in theatre. Her childhood is marked with memories of plays seen at theatres and participated in at school, both in the United States (they lived in Illinois, South Carolina and Colorado) and in Sri Lanka.

The particular love of treading the boards began for Roshani at the teeny age of two and a half – at a ballet class in the US. It got her accustomed to the stage very early, she says. From there she went on to perform in school plays and grab every opportunity to see productions of musicals with her family. By the time they moved to Sri Lanka, she was already dreaming of Broadway and the West End.

Roshani quickly jumped into stagecraft when they arrived in Colombo. She took singing lessons and multiple dance classes and was soon a part of The Workshop Players, appearing as Tallulah in Bugsy Malone, the Young Mistress in Evita and also in Jesus Christ Superstar. Moving from Ladies’ College to The British School in Colombo, she played Carmen in Fame & Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, working extensively with Tracy Holsinger.

“Everything I learned in Sri Lanka – from theatre etiquette to stage presence and everything in between – has held me in good stead here (in London),” she says.

Far from having “lost out” on anything in the move from the US to Sri Lanka, Roshani believes that taking singing lessons with Mary Anne David transformed her into a singer (while in the US she was more a dancer), paving the way for her career in musical theatre.

“(Becoming a singer) is what made it possible for me to play lead roles in musicals,” she explains.

And musical theatre is where she has always wanted to be.

“I always loved the combination of music, acting and dance,” she says. “Being able to tell a story through all three mediums is so amazing.”

Roshani: Musical theatre is where she has always wanted to be

Roshani’s theatrical pursuits are only part of her story. When she moved to London for university, it was, in fact, to study mathematics. Apart from her Teachers’ LRAM (Licentiate of the Royal Academy of Music) in Singing and Musical Theatre and a fast-tracked one-year Masters in Musical Theatre (also from the Royal Academy), Roshani holds a degree in Mathematics from the Imperial College of London. And besides the theatre which is her main commitment, Roshani teaches singing, math and science, and freelances as a data engineer.

When theatres shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Roshani increased her teaching load and then started supporting under-privileged students free of charge.

“What frustrates me and makes me want to teach is the fact that how good you are at a particular subject is determined by how good your teacher is,” she says. “And I hate that you have to have good money to get good teaching when you should just be getting it from school.”

Some of the most rewarding lessons she has taught, she says, were part of the support programme.

“It was the kids reaching out and saying ‘I want help on this and I want to put in the work’; they were keen and worked hard.”

Roshani also teaches when she visits Sri Lanka on holiday at every opportunity she gets. Her interest is in teaching musical theatre as a form, as opposed to how it is often approached here – a mode of theatre that utilizes three separate forms (singing, dancing, acting): singing for musical theatre in particular. And as she talks about her visits home, the theatre scene in Colombo and how she is lately more and more interested in seeing Sinhala-plays, she returns to the phrase “I want to teach a lot more in Sri Lanka.”

Roshani’s driving passion, it seems, is people. And while the fact is evident in her approach to teaching, it also emerges at the core of her love for the theatre:

“The thing I love most about the theatre is the connections you make with people. I love being in a cast – a group of people who have such close emotional connections. Going on for ‘&Juliet’ for the first time – the love and support from the cast really hit me.”

The multi-award-winning show which follows Juliet from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (if she didn’t die!) first opened on the West End in November 2019 and closed in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. When it reopened last month (September 2021), there were three new cast members -  Roshani included.

“I remember being on the tube one day after rehearsal and thinking ‘I did it’,” she grins. “I’ve been doing musicals for so long and always wanted to be on the West End or Broadway.”

“Being in a show with this huge production budget has been interesting – we all have custom-made corsets and wigs and so many costume changes. Previously I had done Gypsy in Manchester at the Royal Exchange Theatre which had been a smaller regional three month long show budget. So it’s fantastic to be on stage with so much cool tech – a double revolve on stage and so much set. There’s a bedazzled Juliet costume that costs between £8-10K and all the understudies have their own set of lead role costumes made to fit them.”

Yet the overarching emotion the opportunity to play in the glitzy musical (full of new takes on popular numbers by Britney Spears, The Backstreet Boys and ‘NSync) inspires in Roshani is gratitude.

“I am so grateful for all the things that brought me here so fast. So soon after the pandemic… I am truly grateful.”

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