Build a Rocket ‒ Interview with lead actor Serena Manteghi

Christopher York’s debut play, Build a Rocket, is a one-woman performance telling a story of teenage pregnancy, young motherhood and female strength in Scarborough. Currently touring the UK and landing at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre on 16 and 17 October, the production stars Serena Manteghi, winner of The Sunday Mail’s ‘Best Female Solo Performance’, as lead character Yasmin. The Student caught up with Manteghi between performances for the show’s London run to find out more about what to expect when it hits the Edinburgh stage.

Hi Serena how has the tour been going so far?

We’ve been on the road for a few weeks now, opening in Scarborough, its home. Taking it out on tour has been really interesting because Yasmin feels so rooted in Scarborough that we were really intrigued to see how it would play elsewhere, but it just proves it’s a really universal story. We’ve clocked well over 2000 miles now – I’m excited to come to Edinburgh, it’s like a home from home for me!

How would you define the general themes of the play in your own words?

It’s a tale of resilience more than anything.  The general social narrative we are sold in the media is that teenage mothers are feckless and irresponsible, whereas actually the opposite tends to be true; they are doing something that is much harder, that requires much more resilience, strength and fortitude than your average teenager – I mean I’m 31 and I’ve not done anything near as hard as raising a child!  So it’s basically about her surpassing even her own expectations of herself.

On that note, how does it feel to be playing a role that touches on such sensitive issues?  Do you feel a responsibility to ‘get it right’?

Very much so, but I feel very lucky in that I immediately felt quite close to Yasmin.  I grew up around lots of girls like Yasmin and that’s who my school mates were. At one point it could have been me; it’s not a story that feels far away from me. I felt a huge sense of responsibility to make her accessible and likeable and the hero of her story. The weirdest thing is that when you tell people the story they’re like ‘Oh God that sounds intense’, and it is, but the writing is very, very funny – [writer] Chris is hilarious. It requires a lot of energy and drawing on a big emotional well to get all those seventeen years packed into eighty-five minutes, but I love it and it’s worth it!

Related to that, how is it being on stage alone for the whole play – do you enjoy the control of the performance, and is it tiring?

I totally understand why it’s a one-woman show. On the whole, I would always rather have another actor on the stage!  But what happens instead is the audience becomes who I play off, and that is really lovely. So even though I don’t get to share the stage with someone else, I get to share the story with the audience more directly, so that’s the payoff.

The play is set in a seaside town.  Do you think that’s pertinent given recent reports that seaside communities are experiencing under-funding and neglect?

Of course – there’s less support for young working-class mums now than there ever has been because of austerity and the cuts to social support, so it’s harder than ever to be Yasmin. But specifically to Scarborough, it’s still quite a thriving place. I think the worst days for seaside towns were a few years ago but people are starting to come back because people are being priced out of bigger cities.

And finally, would you say that this play is aimed at a particular audience, or is there something for everyone?

We thought it would appeal to young people, but I think I get the strongest reaction from parents – you’ve got mums screaming with laughter in solidarity with Yasmin.  It’s really surprised me how broad the audience has been and how much they’ve taken to it. It’s mostly just a really fun hour of theatre because it’s so beautifully written!


Build a Rocket opens tonight at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre.

Image: Sam Taylor

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