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.

Review: The Castle at The Space

In Howard Barker’s rarely performed 1985 play The Castle, Stucley and his men return home from the Crusades to find the women have taken over and established their own tribal regime. Far from the hero’s welcome he was expecting, Stucley is horrified to discover his own wife in a relationship with a witch, and with no interest to returning to his bed – or giving him a child, despite having become famous in his absence for her abundant fertility.

Rather than try and work things out, Stucley decides to build a castle designed by Arab “genius” architect Krak, who’s returned home with him from the Holy Land. As construction gets underway, Stucley grows increasingly obsessed with making his castle bigger and more impressive than anybody else’s – but his plan to win back control ultimately only creates more chaos.

Photo credit: Ellamae Cieslik

It’s quite a strange play in many ways: a lot happens, not all of it very easy to understand and much of it entirely unexpected; it delves into everything from religion to gender politics; and though overwhelmingly dark in tone, there are several moments of surreal humour (at one point Stucley attempts to found a new church, anointing his chosen priest by putting a toolbag on his head in lieu of a hat; at another the witch Skinner, having confessed to murdering the castle’s chief builder, is sentenced to carry his corpse around wherever she goes, only to end up getting rather too attached). The language is also an odd blend of semi-classical and modern, which takes a good few minutes to get used to, particularly as the dialogue is very fast-moving from the start.

Having said all that, Adam Hemming’s new production at The Space is excellent and incredibly atmospheric, with a set from Jo Jones that makes great use of the converted church building to create a show that feels epic in scale. Andy Straw’s lighting design recreates the gloom of rainy middle England, giving us at times only just enough light to see what’s going on, while sound effects from Keri Chesser fill in – on one occasion in rather distressing detail – events unfolding off stage.

The cast of ten give passionate performances, particularly Anthony Cozens as Stucley and Kate Tulloch as Skinner, each driven to the brink of madness by their desire to win. Chris Kyriacou’s Krak looks quietly – and comically – dismayed at first by the chaos he’s stumbled into, but ultimately reveals his own hidden demons, and the same goes for Shelley Davenport’s Ann, whose firm resolve as the play opens soon begins to fall away.

Photo credit: Ellamae Cieslik

With all these strong personalities fighting for supremacy, the play does get a bit shouty (not to mention sweary) at times – but there’s welcome light relief from the likes of Holiday (Matthew Lyon), who’s spent so much time constructing tall buildings he can’t stop looking up and who, ironically, is petrified of heights, and Hush (John Sears), an old man who’s been making himself useful over the last seven years by obligingly getting all the women pregnant.

Despite the quality of the production, I’m not sure enjoyable is the right word for The Castle – which would probably quite please its writer, who in 2012 was quoted as saying, “A good play puts the audience through a certain ordeal. I’m not interested in entertainment.” All in all, this is the kind of play that leaves you feeling a bit bewildered and more than a little uncomfortable. Those who like to come away from the theatre understanding everything that just happened might want to steer clear; Barker doesn’t give us any easy answers, instead leaving it to the individual to interpret what we’ve seen in our own way. On the other hand, if you enjoy watching committed, compelling performances in a play that’s dramatic and darkly humorous, and which provides more than enough food for thought to keep you going for a good long while, this might just be the show for you.


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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.


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Review: The Gospel According to Philip, Theatre N16

For Arrows & Traps, known for their popular adaptations of Shakespeare and other classic works of literature, The Gospel According to Philip is unfamiliar territory. A brand new comedy written by Richard Melchior and Heidi Svoboda, the play couldn’t be more different to the company’s last two shows: a bloody and politically charged Macbeth, preceded by a gripping adaptation of Tolstoy’s epic novel, Anna Karenina.

So, a bit of a gamble perhaps for Arrows director Ross McGregor, but did it pay off? Absolutely.

Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza
Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza
To be more exact, The Gospel According to Philip left me wondering why it took Arrows & Traps so long to tackle their first outright comedy. Not to mention giggling all the way home over the brilliantly bonkers dance routines. (If you need only one reason to see this show, make it the unforgettable sight of Jesus Irish dancing. You’re welcome.)

The play is an irreverent re-imagining of the story of Jesus and his disciples, leading up to the crucifixion, all set down in often quite unnecessary amounts of detail by Philip, the newest member of the gang. Will Mytum, who plays the eager apostle, is irresistible from the moment he steps on stage – even before he opens his mouth, he has us laughing with his earnest expression and childlike excitement… and he only gets more adorable as the play goes on.

As in previous Arrows productions, every member of the cast excels, with most of them taking on multiple roles, and all proving themselves to be gifted comedians. Adam Elliott is full of charisma as bad boy Judas, while Elle Banstead Salim is a whirlwind of energy as feisty chatterbox Mary Magdalene (and also puts in a couple of fantastic cameos as a bride upstaged by Jesus at her own wedding, and Pontius Pilate’s Catherine Tate-inspired receptionist). Alex Stevens has perhaps the most challenging role as Paul, whose wildly homophobic language only thinly veils his private confusion and vulnerability. And then there’s Jesus, played by Pearce Sampson, master of the beatific smile, albeit often through gritted teeth, who grows increasingly frustrated as the disciples persist in asking awkward questions he can’t answer.

Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza
Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza
Which brings us to the message at the heart of a play that’s undoubtedly very funny, but has a serious point to make as well. In a scene that even the script acknowledges is a bit preachy and makes everyone uncomfortable, a smiley, likeable Devil (Olivia Hanrahan-Barnes) paints a vivid picture for Jesus of the bleak future ahead, in which human beings will commit acts of horrifying violence in the name of their faith – but even this can’t deter him from the path laid out for him. Later, Jesus asks Matthew Harrison-James’ Geordie-accented God (who has a few issues of his own to work out) why he has to die in such a horrific way, and – while clearly dissatisfied with the response – goes ahead and does it anyway, because that’s The Plan.

Perhaps it sounds like Melchior and Svoboda’s play is anti-religion, or out to cause offence. It’s true that it plays fast and loose with the Bible as we know it – although I must admit I quite enjoy the idea that the Last Supper might have consisted of crisps and rum instead of bread and wine. But ultimately, the unexpectedly sombre final speech of an older, wiser Philip is one of acceptance. Some people have faith; some don’t, and ultimately it doesn’t really matter – as long as we exercise caution. Believing something just because “it is written”, without question, is just as dangerous as believing nothing at all – and that’s a rule that could be applied to all kinds of things, not just religion.

The Gospel According to Philip is witty, cheeky, sometimes very silly and ultimately pretty challenging. And it’s been brought to life for the very first time by a company who, it seems, can turn their hand to just about anything. Including Irish dancing, apparently.


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Interview: Arrows & Traps, The Gospel According to Philip

“It’s a modern Life Of Brian, but with sharper knives,” explains Ross McGregor, Director of Arrows & Traps. Following their recent critically acclaimed production of Macbeth at New Wimbledon Studio, the company are turning their attention to something very different for their next project.

“The Gospel According To Philip is the story of a young man, Philip, who decides to join the Apostles, a secret club of men, and follow a new messiah called Jesus. The story is told from his perspective as it charts Jesus’s final weeks on earth, running to his crucifixion.”

The production began with an approach from one of the writers, Richard Melchior. “I’ve known Richard for about 10 years; we worked together early in our careers doing regional tours in East Anglia. He brought this script to me just after his co-writer, Heidi Svoboda, tragically passed away, and asked me if there was any way to get this performed, as he was really proud of it. Initially I was just interested in it from a personal level, as I’ve always been a fan of Richard’s work, but when I started to actually read it, I was blown away. The satire is wonderfully drawn and subtle enough to make you think, and these iconic, almost mythical people are so recognisable but also feel completely fresh.

“You have the different character dynamics at work in terms of the apostles, and what Richard and Heidi have done, in a stroke of genius, is to transform Jesus and his disciples into a weary primary school teacher trope trying to control a group of unruly children, which gives it so much life. You have Peter as the teacher’s pet, the smart alec filled with impossible questions in Matthew, Judas as the cool kid smoking at the back of the classroom, the remedial dunce in James, the closeted gay man in Paul, and Philip as the new kid at school. It’s a fantastic re-imagining of how the Bible should have gone.

“I was so impressed with the quality of the writing and the machine-gun-like frequency of the punchlines. It’s one of the best comedies I’ve read in quite a while – but then when the ending comes, the poignancy and sense of loss is devastating. When I realised this ending reflected Richard’s loss of Heidi after she died, and that this might be the only chance of her work being performed now – I knew I had to take it on myself.”

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Offie-nominated Arrows & Traps are known for their productions of classics, particularly Shakespeare, so the new show marks quite a departure from tradition. “This isn’t an Arrows show in the expected sense – it isn’t Shakespeare, there are no extended movement pieces, we’re not subverting a classic or switching genders – but hopefully we will retain enough of what has made the last six shows so successful and bring you a recognisable Arrows-shaped piece of entertainment – which I think means that I want to take characters that you think you know, and show you their humanity and vulnerability in a new way, whilst entertaining you senseless.

“In Arrows shows we normally try to take an old story and tell it in a new way, but with this, that exact action has already been performed by the writers before we got our hands on it. They took the Bible, spun it on its head and created The Gospel According To Philip. So the Arrows spin is done without an Arrow having to lift a finger. All we have to do now is bring it to life in the most fair and honest way possible. And make sure it’s funny, of course. Has to be funny.”

Staging a piece of new writing for the first time brings with it a new kind of pressure: “I’m wary of doing this one justice, as it’s the first time the script has ever been performed, and whilst we don’t have the shadows of hundreds of other past productions looming over us like we usually do with Shakespeare, this one seems even more important to get right because I really want this little show to have a great future, and go from strength to strength in years to come, whatever shape that might take. It’s a great piece, and deserves a long life.

“On the other hand, there might be less pressure in terms of reviews and audiences, because with Shakespeare that’s always massive. On our last show, Macbeth, the vision and direction that the witches would take absolutely plagued me in the preparation stages, because they’re so iconic, everyone has their version of what they should be like… it was very hard to try to honour those views, honour the world of our play, serve the narratives that the text has, and also show something new with them. Lots of pressure. So Philip doesn’t have that. Or perhaps it does! I mean, doesn’t everyone kind of have a preconceived notion of what Jesus looks like? In the west, he’s a Brad Pitt-esque, blue-eyed, golden-haired white man. So I guess there’s always pressure.”

Arrows & Traps’ fanbase of “devoted trappers” will, as always, spot some familiar faces in the cast. “A massive part of what makes an Arrows & Traps show so special is the people in it. We are a repertory company in the sense that there’s a core base of people involved, but we always try to mix it up with new actors, so it stays fresh.

“We have Pearce Sampson playing Jesus, a very talented funny actor whom people may recognise as our Porter and Lennox from Macbeth, and bright young star Alex Stevens playing Paul – he was our Malcolm in Macbeth and our Demetrius in Titus Andronicus. The deliciously watchable Adam Elliott plays Judas; audiences at the Jack will remember him as Karenin, the husband in our Anna Karenina, and in the title role of Philip we have Will Mytum, a great actor renowned on the Off West End circuit, who previously played Vronsky in our Anna Karenina, and Chiron in Titus Andronicus. We have Elle Banstead-Salim playing Mary Magdalene, coming hot off of finishing her brilliant turn as Lady Macduff and Witch in Macbeth, and Gareth Kearns playing Matthew. Gareth has been involved in every Arrows show so far, and recently it was my honour to watch his 100th performance with us. There’s no-one I’d rather have on this project than Gareth, as he’s perfectly suited for it.

“And then lastly we have three new actors, Tom Telford, Matthew Harrison-James, and Olivia Hanrahan-Barnes, all of whom I’ve auditioned in the past and was impressed by – it was just about getting the right role at the right time, which we’ve now found. I guess that’s a lesson in perseverance for any actor out there feeling like it’s too tough in the industry right now. We do listen, and we do remember, and we always come back to you when the time is right. So really, this amalgamation of both old and new faces is perhaps the thing about the show that I’m most looking forward to, because there is literally no weak link in these guys.”

Why should audiences come and see The Gospel According to Philip? “A brilliant tagline a friend used when I told her about the show was Passion Of The Christ With Jokes. If that doesn’t make you want to buy a ticket, then you’re dead inside. Also, supporting brilliant and passionate fringe venues like the Brockley Jack and Theatre N16 is so important if we want places like this to keep offering their communities such diverse and arresting art on their doorsteps.

“The play might make you think, but it will definitely make you laugh. It’s a great night out at the theatre. And the themes that it raises are exactly the things that we should be talking about right now. The world is a scary place, and terrible machinations are threatening to pull us apart as a human race. Faith is often held up as a banner or scapegoat for cruelty and hatred, and really, for things as old as religion, we need to go back to the start and look at what happened and learn from it. There’s something terrifying about the way that all the different religions have become so ingrained in our culture, our faiths, and yet really – every single one of them started as a flawed, wobbly cult, a series of men meeting in dark rooms telling stories and writing down rules for life. I think this play has a lot to say about our modern world, about those of us who are lost, and about where we should draw our strength from.

“Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t a night of theological debate – there’s too many cock jokes in it for that. But as with the best of our satire, and I think Terry Pratchett may hold that crown for me, beneath the jokes and laughter there’s always a question, a poke in the ribs, something to argue about on the way home.”

Looking ahead, the rest of the season marks a return to more traditional fare, with the unique Arrows flavour that audiences have come to know and love. “The Broken Crown Season is epic. It’s massive. And it’s going to be the best work we’ve ever done. For me, the Broken Crown symbolises not just the fall of a king, but the breakdown and hollowness of responsibility, power and promise. It’s about ambition and the price that comes with it. It’s about kings, and gods, and leaders, but also relationships and trust. We’ve started things off with Macbeth, an obvious choice to get things rolling, now we’re tackling Jesus and the birth of Christianity, and after that we open our first true repertory double bill with Twelfth Night and Othello, performed simultaneously at Upstairs at the Gatehouse, on alternate nights over three weeks in November by the same cast. It’s going to be amazing fun, particularly on double show days where we do both texts.

“In the new year, we bring a modern horror-story vision of Frankenstein set in two different time periods, flicking in and out of a pair of narratives, and we finish with a thriller award-winning adaptation of Crime & Punishment, which has been boiled down into an action-packed, edge of your seat, 90-minute, three-hander, which I cannot wait to do, personally, as the script is electric. After that… watch this space.  The Arrows have plenty more stories to tell.”

Catch The Gospel According to Philip at Brockley Jack Studio Theatre from 30th August-3rd September, and Theatre N16 from 4th-8th September.