London theatre fans – there’s a new play coming to town. Sushi Girls is a comedy about two Japanese girls who come to London to study English. Back-breaking stuff for their host family which has to bow to their every needs.
The play will be running at Theatro Technis London in Camden 25-27 July. Ahead of the show, I caught up with playwright Tony Leliw and director Antti Hakala…
Give us your elevator pitch of ‘Sushi Girls’
Tony: For me writing Sushi Girls was so exciting that I had to treat myself to a KitKat and a Caffe Latte to celebrate its final conclusion. You’ve heard of the Cheeky Girls, well here are the Sushi Girls – who come to England to study English. One, a good girl from Kyoto, the other a bad apple from Tokyo. One is from a poor family, polite and traditional – the other harks from a rich family, spoilt and difficult to get on with. How far will Shizuko go to sabotaging her trip to the UK to be with her boyfriend back home? Would she kill? And can Ichika, whose life dream is to be in London and see the sights of Big Ben and Buckingham Palace, stop her from getting them both deported. It’s a battle royal between the two Sushi Girls, with a British host family caught in the middle.
What was the inspiration for the story?
Tony: For years I’ve been telling foreign student who have come to London to study English and who have stayed at my home that I would one day write a play about them – so here it is. It’s a compilation of hundreds of students from all countries rolled into two Japanese girls.
How much of the story or characters are based on your real-life experiences?
Tony: The characters of Anton and Anna (host father and mother) are loosely based on me and my wife Anna. Regarding Ichika – the good girl – she is a compilation of lots of Japanese girls, from Mamiko to Akiko and Izumi. Shinzuko – the bad girl – however, though Japanese, has traits from other countries – I don’t want to name them in case I alienate my audience – but if they come to see my play – they may recognise themselves. My big fear when writing the play was that I didn’t know any bad Japanese girls, though at auditions, good Japanese girls were queuing up for the role. Was it because no such role has ever been cast, or because they wanted to be bad?
Tell us about your involvement in bringing the play to the stage?
Tony: I wanted to put the play on at Theatro Technis in Camden where I had my first play ‘You What? He’s Ukrainian’ , based on my own life story, so I was pleased when Aris Eugeniou, who runs the theatre with his father George, gave me a three-day slot. I then started to build a team around me. These included casting/director Antti Hakala, technical crew Reuben Batdorff, and poster designer/musical director Toon Moon Min.
Antti: I will be directing the play, and I did cast the actors together with Tony. I’ve also been involved as a script editor assisting Tony and giving him a few ideas.
Who is in the cast?
Tony: We have four characters in the play – the host father Anton played by Mark Keegan, host mother Kate Winder, and two Japanese students, Shizuko played by Rina Saito, and Ichika played by Shina Shihoko Nagai.
How long has it taken for the play to go from an idea to stage? What work and research was involved?
Tony: The concept of this play has been going around in my head for more than a decade. I’ve been collecting anecdotes, funny happening and cultural mishaps for years. I started to write a series of sketches around Italian, Spanish, Colombian, Bolivian, Austrian, Argentinian, Japanese and Korean students. The play was called ‘No Comprende’ as when students didn’t want to listen, they would always fake not knowing what me and my wife were telling them. “No speak English – speak little, no understand. The play then evolved into two Ukrainian girls – one poor – the other the daughter of a hotelier oligarch. After a trip to Japan last year, my wife Anna encouraged me to get out of the Ukrainian cultural bubble and write something outside of my heritage and comfort zone. Having decided to see our former student and long-term friend Keiichirou Ota, who had helped sponsor my previous play, I wanted to personally meet him and shake his hand for his help. Eventually my wife convinced me to make the play about two Japanese girls. By this time I was so impressed with Japanese culture, and how local people responded to us as tourists, there was no question but to learn more about the country and extol its virtues, even if in a fun way.
What advice would you give to budding playwrights?
Tony: My advice is to keep writing those plays until you start hearing the characters talk to you and tell you where they want to go. They may even start appearing in your dreams. On a couple of occasions my wife wanted to know who Ichika and Shizuko were. She was convinced they were real people. They soon will be when they appear on stage.
What are some of the challenges in putting on a play in London?
Tony: Being a new playwright, means amateur groups won’t touch you as they can’t risk empty seats. They will put on a Shakespeare play or from an established writer. So, if you are doing an independent production like we are, you have to find a market. Our play is out to entertain the general public – but it is also pitched at foreign students here learning English and the wider Japanese community.
Antti: We work closely together and clearly share responsibilities between the production team. Well planned is half done, as they say. Gladly, London has a great variety talent available from all parts of the world, like Japanese. However, the best actors get booked fast if you don’t grab them and many hustle between other offers and commitments. It’s good to build a team you can trust will get along and do the job.
Probably the biggest challenge is to become noticed as London is one of the most competitive entertainment hubs in the world. Then again, there are plenty of locals and visitors always looking for new shows to see. It’s worth investing a thought where to find that potential target or niche audience for your own show.
How can people support your play, besides buying tickets?
Tony: Please spread the word. This is a unique play as it is not just entertaining but gives students from all countries an insight into what it is like living with a British host family. Also thrown into the mix is a host family father who is a cockney – so if you are a foreign student visiting – not only do you get the chance to see a play in English, but even pick up a few cockney words. For those that want to support us, there’s a whole host of social links on our poster. My local Chinese takeaway Ming Sing, Dry Cleaners in Pinner Road, Doki Japanese Tableware in Harrow, have put up posters in their windows. International House in Covent Garden and Lemy School in Harrow, are advertising the show to their students. Getting sponsorship has been very hard – it would be nice to get a Japanese backer, big or small, as the play is a great advertisement for the country and has given two Japanese girls a much-wanted role on the London stage. Nestle Japan have been very generous in allowing us to use their KitKat Matcha logo on our poster. We are also humbled by the Japanese Embassy in London, who has included our play as part of its Season of Culture 2019-20, and The Japan Society in the UK, who have listed Sushi Girls on their external events website.