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Actor Irvine Iqbal: Token BAME casting in West End shows will no longer cut it

“I passionately believe that the stage needs to reflect the diversity of the UK population or it risks becoming sidelined,” Andrew Lloyd Webber said when his foundation released the groundbreaking Centre Stage report [1]in December 2016. I couldn’t agree more.

The report was part of a movement that has highlighted minority talent’s struggle in recent times. It is to be welcomed, but we should remember what things were like before. Many years ago while training in musical theatre, I was never conscious that the character parts I was reading, rehearsing or singing had ‘ethnic’ backgrounds; I simply chose roles that challenged me. But after launching a career in 2000, it became apparent that I was only being seen for parts that suited my ethnic background. I was fortunate that Bombay Dreams [2] came along; my heritage, a blend of Indian and Pakistani, perfectly suited the production.

It was a dream breakthrough and I am grateful to Lloyd Webber for his vision back in 2002 when he created the show. Fast-forward to today and there is a wealth of ethnic minority talent across the West End, from Dreamgirls [3] and Motown [4] to my own show, Disney’s Aladdin [5]. It feels like black, Asian and minority ethnic performers are finally being given a regular platform. But how do we ensure that this platform endures? In 2014, Lenny Henry [6] delivered an influential BAFTA lecture, in which he discussed BAME-commissioned television programmes at the BBC. One qualifying criteria he suggested was that “at least 50% of onscreen talent must be black, Asian or minority ethnic”. Recently I’ve wondered if the time has come for West End producers to consider adopting similar casting criteria.

In Aladdin, I am so proud to be working alongside a talented cast of 39 actors from a huge range of backgrounds. Ever since The Lion [7] King [7], Disney’s productions have led the way in this regard. But there are still a dominant number of West End shows that do not display such diversity. This paradigm needs to shift, urgently, to avoid a situation whereby BAME talent is only considered suitable for ‘ethnic minority shows’.

Surely in the age of Hamilton [8], the idea that only white actors can play white historical figures has been put to bed? And as for fictional characters, we can probably rest easy when several actors in the running to be the next James Bond are black. But one thing is certain: productions can and must do better than ‘token’ BAME casting. Two ethnic minority actors in a cast of 30 is simply not representative. In fact it, arguably, does more harm than good. Paying lip-service in this way denies too much BAME talent the necessary experience and profile, thereby perpetuating the problem.

Proper guidelines, or even quotas, may be the only way to ensure the ratios Lloyd Webber spoke about. That way we will not only see a much better reflection of society on our stages, but give the BAME talents of tomorrow far more chance of success. I would ask all of the West End to stand up with me and say two words: ‘Proportionate representation.’