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: An Injury at Ovalhouse

Kieran Hurley’s An Injury is unsettling from the start, as the four performers walk on to the set deliberately looking around to catch the audience’s eye. This sets the tone for a play whose aim is to remind us of our own complicity in the violence that increasingly dominates our everyday world – whether that violence is happening right in front of us or on the other side of the world, and whether we’re participants or merely observers.

Photo credit: Alex Brenner

This is the story of four characters – three of them living in the same anonymous city, the other in a foreign country. Writer Danny is desperately trying to make his mark by writing something revolutionary. Joe’s a drone pilot haunted by a small figure he saw running towards the target seconds before his last missile hit. Morvern longs to escape her temp job inputting the names of rejected asylum seekers. And then there’s Isma, a young girl in a far-off country – and that’s all we know about Isma. As the four characters’ stories begin to intersect, the actors take turns playing them, reinforcing the idea that these people could be any one of us. Meanwhile the others narrate for our benefit, never allowing us to forget that we’re in a theatre and there are lessons to be learnt. As we build towards a dramatic climax, it seems inevitable that one of the characters must take action against the status quo… but will they, or will they simply continue in their numb acceptance of the way things are?

The delivery of the play, which is directed by alex swift – who previously collaborated with Kieran Hurley on Heads Up – is unusual, disorientating and potentially divisive. The production has an unpolished feel in both performance and design; all four actors read from their scripts, although it’s never completely clear if this is from necessity or if it’s just another way to remind us we’re watching a piece of theatre. The only other props are four chairs, which are rearranged as each new scene is introduced by a burst of white noise and an instruction to “zoom in” or “zoom out”. This simplicity of design means our attention is entirely focused on the script, which describes in detail everything we can’t see or hear, and is delivered with passion and real anger by the cast (Khalid Abdalla, Julia Taudevin, Yusra Warsama and Alex Austin). But the lack of variety in scenes also makes the piece hard to define – it falls somewhere between a play and a lecture, with the actors frequently breaking the fourth wall to challenge us directly about our own response to what we’re seeing.

Photo credit: Alex Brenner

Hurley’s script is undoubtedly thought-provoking, asking some brutal and highly topical questions about ends and means, which linger in the mind as we step back into the real world. There’s so much to consider, and delivered at such a rapid-fire pace, that it’s almost impossible to take it all in at a single hit. An Injury is a call to action – although what action we’re being invited to take remains unclear; the only truly unforgivable response to the play, it seems, is continued apathy.

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… 😉

Interview: Yolanda Mercy, Quarter Life Crisis

“Alicia is a hot mess. She doesn’t know where she’s going in life. But everyone around her seems to know what they are doing. What does it mean to be an adult and when do you become one?”

Yolanda Mercy is Associate Artist at Ovalhouse, winner of the Rich Mix Small Story Big City Award, a visiting lecturer for Central School of Speech and Drama and a trustee of the National Youth Association. Incredibly, she also has time to be an actor and playwright, and this Easter weekend brings her new show, Quarter Life Crisis, to Ovalhouse as part of their FiRST BiTES series.

“I’d like audiences to take away with them the element of learning that it’s okay not to know what you’re doing with your life,” explains Yolanda. “We’re constantly bombarded with stories of people who are the same age as us, but seem to have it all together. I want audiences to leave the show empowered, knowing that even if you feel like you’re lost in life, there is a way out – and sometimes the clues within our names can lay the foundation of that empowerment.”

Yolanda was inspired to write the show by her own personal experience. “I felt like I was having a Quarter Life Crisis when my friends were getting married or having babies, and my biggest worry was that I have to surrender my 16-25 railcard.

“I’ve been thinking about this show for over a year, but I started working on it at ARC in June. Since then I’ve performed extracts of it at Brainchild’s Hatch, Vault festival and Ovalhouse theatre. The feedback and responses from the audience have been overwhelming – with a lot of audiences saying, ‘this show is so funny and really relatable’. Which is such an honour because I’m constantly told by audiences who have seen my shows like On The Edge Of Me, that my work is relatable.”

So, is this just a show for young people on the verge of adulthood? “No. I would say that this show is for anyone who has experienced a Quarter Life Crisis – who’s felt like everyone around them has gotten their life together quicker than they have.”

In December 2016, Yolanda was appointed Associate Artist at Ovalhouse, and Quarter Life Crisis is the first of many exciting projects she’ll be working on over the next two years. “I’m from south London. I live 12 minutes’ walk from the Ovalhouse. 6 minutes if I’m feeling lazy and need to rent a bike,” she says. “Being at this theatre where so many artists who I admire have gone through is such a huge achievement. I’ve worked really hard alongside my team Gemma Lloyd and Jade Lewis to constantly work to make exciting, thought provoking yet honest shows. I feel honoured that we’ve already started to build a loyal audience who come to see our shows time and time again. I’m so touched that people love our work. When we were doing On The Edge Of Me, we had audiences who saw the show three times. So it’s great to have a base like Ovalhouse for my audiences to access our shows and workshops.”

The show features live music, and a special guest from the local community – and there’s an element of audience participation too, although Yolanda’s keeping the details under her hat for now. “All I can say is be prepared to join in and have some fun…”

Quarter Life Crisis is at Ovalhouse from 13th-15th April.

Interview: Owen Calvert-Lyons, Ovalhouse Spring 2017

“It’s a season of new beginnings – new artists, new works, new ideas,” says Owen Calvert-Lyons, Head of Theatre and Artist Development at South London’s Ovalhouse. This week sees the launch of his first major season since taking over last year, featuring an imaginative and innovative programme of shows that runs until the end of April.

“I had a number of ambitions for this first season,” Owen explains. “I wanted to signal a return to our roots as a 
home for radical artists and radical ideas. I wanted to build a community of artists at all
 stages of their career. I wanted to take a risk on some young artists – giving them the 
opportunity to create work for our main stage. I also wanted to provide opportunities for a
 whole series of artists to work with Ovalhouse for the first time, which is why my first season 
is weighted towards experimentation – with eight new works-in-development.

“I think it’s a great season – there are shows that I can’t wait to see again
 and shows which I’m desperate to see for the first time. I am really pleased that five artists 
presenting work in my first season are graduates of our participation programme, which tells 
me that we have a strong future ahead of us.”

JOAN, 11th-22nd April

With so many exciting shows to choose from, how does Owen go about putting a season together? “I start with a series of principles – ideas that I want to see within the season: radicalism,
 diversity, politics, feminism, gender politics. Some shows I see at festivals – both JOAN and
 Eurohouse were at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe – and I saw a work-in-progress of Focus Group
 over a year ago and loved it. Other shows, such as Custody, have come to me more recently
 but have an urgency about them which demands to be heard.

“Then there are the FiRST
 BiTES – eight work-in-progress productions which we are testing out for the first time. All of
 these start with an artist bringing us a great idea; an idea which just needs some time, some
 resources and some love to start the journey towards becoming a great play. This season, I’ve also launched a regular strand of work for children and families. We want this work to 
have the same principles as our work for adults, so our first two productions explore grief 
(The Many Doors of Frank Feelbad) and gender politics (Moonshine’s Entirely Necessary 

Moonshine’s Entirely Necessary Adventure, 13th-14th February
Moonshine’s Entirely Necessary Adventure, 13th-14th February

Presented with the thankless task of choosing some season highlights, Owen tactfully rises to the challenge: “It’s impossible to pick a favourite, but I would recommend Focus Group – a dark and
 unsettling journey into the world of Mister Kipling cakes, and JOAN – a beautiful re-telling of the
 story of Joan of Arc. Lucy, who plays Joan, won The Stage award for her performance, and
 rightly so, she’s brilliant. And Custody – Urban Wolf has been trying to get this play made for
 the past two years; it explores the injustices by the police which he’s witnessed first-hand
 in Brixton. He’s put together a great creative team, with a brilliant script from Tom Wainwright – it’s an urgent story and I’m really proud that we are going to bring it to an

For first-time visitors, he has a few additional tips. “I’m still amazed when people say to me that they’ve never been to Ovalhouse – it’s a
 hidden gem, right in central London. If you’ve never been before and want to dip your toe in,
 then come for a FiRST BiTE show for just £5. Or if you’re feeling more adventurous, come to
 one of our *Discuss nights, where you see a show, immediately followed by an audience-led 
discussion over a glass of wine.

“I’m not sure we’ll ever be the sort of venue that pleases everyone – but this season has a
 pretty broad appeal. If you’re ever unsure if there is a show for you, just call our box office -
 we have a brilliant team who can talk you through the brochure and find a show that suits
 your tastes.”

Ovalhouse’s Spring Season runs until 29
 April 2017.

Interview: Danyah Miller, Why The Whales Came

“I love how this story makes us think about others, about how we view difference and how sometimes we misjudge when we’re unsure or afraid,” says Danyah Miller, award-winning performer and storyteller, of Michael Morpurgo’s Why the Whales Came. “I would hope that the audience take away a sense of hope and joy and perhaps the feeling that one person can make a huge difference.”

Why the Whales Came sees Danyah again teaming up with director Dani Parr and designer Kate Bunce, following the success of their collaboration on I Believe in Unicorns – also by Michael Morpurgo. “I love working on Michael’s stories because they’re multi-layered and really gripping tales, based in truth,” she explains. “It is often said that he doesn’t patronise children in anyway and takes them, and us, to dark places and back again. I like that. I find his stories full of surprises, sadness, hope, joy. Above all, they’re about ordinary folk often doing extraordinary things during extraordinary times.”

Photo credit: Helen Murray
Photo credit: Helen Murray

Their admiration is mutual; Michael Morpurgo describes Danyah as a “storytelling phenomenon”. What inspired her to take up performing as a career? “As long as I can remember I wanted to be a performer and I certainly ‘entertained’ my way through childhood! I have always been very chatty and there’s nothing I like more than spinning a good tale. How I became a storyteller is a long story…

“I suspect that the difference between being an actor and being a storyteller is a very fine line. As a storyteller we ‘hold’ a central point, as ourselves, and from there paint the world of the story, become characters, weave in and out of landscapes and people, but we always come back to the centre, as ourselves. As an actor we become another character and remain in that role (although of course sometimes actors are asked to multi-role too). Perhaps it’s possible to be both, I suspect that the best in our profession are both actor and storyteller. Stories are everywhere, aren’t they? We are storytelling beings and it’s what makes us human…”

Why the Whales Came is the story of Gracie and Daniel, who’ve been forbidden to go near the mysterious and seemingly dangerous Birdman – but then they find a message in the sand that suggests all is not as it seems. When they get stranded on the Birdman’s tiny island, the two friends begin to unravel his secrets…

Although it’s based on a children’s book, Danyah believes the show has something for everyone: “This is definitely not a show just for children – it is a ‘family’ show in the widest possible sense. We have people of all ages from 7 to 107 enjoying the show whether or not they have children with them. Good stories, good theatre can appeal across the ages and we hope that our show does this.

“I enjoy sharing the show with children who’ve never been to a theatre before or experienced any kind of live show – as an audience they are really responsive and truthful and often give me insightful feedback. I also really enjoy it when families of children, parents and grandparents come to see the show and all of them have been moved by the show in different ways.”

Photo credit: Helen Murray
Photo credit: Helen Murray

As a solo performer, Danyah may be the only person on stage, but she’s far from lonely. “I really like performing solo, although I feel as if I have a collaborator when I perform on the set, in the ‘world’ that the creative team have produced… the set, projection, lighting and sound,” she says. “I also like to be able to see the audience, we have the lights set so I can do this – so I’m not alone. I think of what I do as a delicious triangle between the story, myself and the audience – every show is different because of this, and I’m never lonely. I do have to make sure that I’m always fit and ready though, as it’s down to me being on top form for every show!”

Why the Whales Came is at Ovalhouse until 31st December, with other one-off performances scheduled for early 2017.