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.

Review: Becoming Mohammed at The Pleasance

Becoming Mohammed by Claudia Marinaro packs an unexpected punch. On the surface a relatively straightforward family drama, on another, deeper level, it forces us to question our own assumptions and what’s led us to form these opinions in the first place.

The story’s based on director Annemiek van Elst’s real-life family experience, and sees Sarah (Philippa Carson) return home after living abroad for two years, looking forward to indulging in a bit of nostalgia with her brother Thomas (Jack Hammett). But when she learns he’s become a Muslim in her absence, a horrified Sarah does all she can to talk him out of it, assuming he’s been brainwashed by new best friend Musa (Jonah Fazel) and his sister – now Thomas’ fiancée – Aminah (Nadia Lamin).

Photo credit: And Many Others

With time and understanding, Sarah and Thomas set out on the road to resolving their family drama. But there’s a bigger conflict brewing, as an enthusiastic Thomas attempts to bridge the gap between Muslims and non-Muslims within the local community, not realising he’s fighting a losing battle against the ignorance and fear that’s become such a natural part of our society we barely notice it any more. Musa and Aminah, on the other hand, exude a weary resignation to the prejudice against them and it’s perhaps this that hits hardest – the fact that an entire section of society feels there’s no point standing up for themselves because nothing will ever change.

In trying to shed a little light on what Islam is really all about, Marinaro has been careful to create well-rounded characters and a realistic portrayal of Muslim culture. So Aminah can’t be alone with Thomas without a chaperone until they’re married, and won’t let Sarah wear heels to visit the mosque because they “make you walk a certain way” – but all three Muslim characters also frequently swear like troopers and listen to the likes of Beyonce and Coolio. It’s interesting too to see Aminah go from shy bride-to-be in Act 1 to by far the strongest personality in Act 2, with Nadia Lamin revelling in her character’s transformation and delivering some brilliant one-liners as she figuratively bangs everyone else’s heads together. In direct contrast, Jonah Fazel’s Musa shifts from being a bit of a joker early on to take a more confrontational position when he sees his position as spokesman for the Muslim community threatened by his own protege.

Photo credit: And Many Others

While there’s a surprising amount of humour in the play (yet another assumption shattered – why should we be surprised that a play about Islam is funny?), there are also some really touching scenes between Jack Hammett and Philippa Carson as the estranged siblings. Sarah’s visit has been prompted by Thomas’ plans to sell their family home; they’re surrounded throughout by plastic boxes filled with childhood memories. It soon becomes clear that Sarah’s main concern isn’t really that her brother’s being radicalised; it’s a basic human fear of losing him to a world that she doesn’t understand. The problem is, he’s so excited about his new life that he’s blind to her vulnerability – and so the distance between them grows ever greater.

Becoming Mohammed may be based on one family’s story, but it’s representative of many more. The play shows how far we still have to go, not only in our understanding of Muslim culture, but in breaking down the stereotypes associated with it. Only by challenging the idea of “us and them” can society – and we as individuals – move forward together.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉