Review: Coconut at Ovalhouse

The Thelmas are a female led company specialising in “great stories, told by great women”. And there’s no doubt that Rumi, the main character in Guleraana Mir’s Coconut, fits that bill perfectly. When we meet her, she’s about to go halal speed dating, and dreaming about meeting someone cool who’s attracted not to her Muslim upbringing, but to who she really is: a bacon-loving food blogger who’d rather go to the pub than the mosque. And then she meets Simon, who’s everything she wants in a man – apart from the fairly significant detail that he’s white.

Photo credit: Greg Goodale

As you might expect from a play that begins with halal speed dating, Coconut is a very funny take on religion, culture and the pressure to be someone you’re not for fear of letting other people down. Rumi, played brilliantly by Kuran Dohil, is the coconut of the title: the term is used to describe someone who’s brown on the outside but white on the inside, and as a result not quite enough of either to really belong. In Simon, Rumi sees a chance to move towards the life she really wants, but in return asks him for a small compromise: if they’re going to be together, he’ll need to convert to Islam.

It’s at this point that the play takes an unexpectedly serious turn, and Rumi’s inner fabulous – embodied by Tibu Fortes in a hilariously flamboyant performance that couldn’t be more different to his far more tranquil role as Irfan the Imam – begins to fall silent. Simon’s conversion was supposed to be no more than a box-ticking exercise to keep the family happy, but it turns out not only is he keen to take his new faith seriously, he wants Rumi to do the same. As his enthusiasm develops into an unhealthy obsession, Rumi finds herself forced to choose once again between being true to herself and disappointing the people she loves.

Despite all its ups and downs, Rumi’s story is both entertaining and satisfying to watch, thanks to the effortless comic talents of Kuran Dohil and the down-to-earth, believable way in which her character’s written. Simon, on the other hand, is more problematic; though it’s hard to fault Jimmy Carter’s performance, the transformation in his character feels a little too sudden to be realistic, and is so extreme that it prevents us feeling any sympathy for the fact he now finds himself, like Rumi, caught between two worlds. (Although perhaps I’m just annoyed by his disparaging comments about bloggers…)

Photo credit: Greg Goodale

An ingenious origami-like set from designer Baśka Wesolowska is put to good use throughout Madelaine Moore’s production, with what at first appears to be a simple hexagonal platform coming apart to become a bar, a home, a hilltop, a mosque… at one point, we even find ourselves on a crazy golf course. There are a lot of scene changes during the 90-minute show, but these are all handled swiftly by the cast and are never long enough that our attention has time to waver. And although the play could perhaps come to an end a little earlier than it does, the final scene is worth waiting for; a fitting conclusion for a character we’ve grown to really care about.

Coconut offers a refreshingly unique perspective on what it means to be a Muslim in Britain today, and prompts an interesting discussion on the difference between religion and culture. There are aspects of the story that don’t sit quite right, but a strong cast and irresistible strong female protagonist make this enjoyable show well worth a visit.

Coconut is at Ovalhouse until 28th April, with other UK dates to follow; for more details visit The Thelmas’ website.