The Thelmas round off the current season at the Ovalhouse with their production of Guleraana Mir’s play Coconut, directed by Madelaine Moore. After a short run in South London it heads out on a UK tour, taking in venues from Stockton and Slough to Leicester and Oldham. The title comes from the colloquial term that means a person is “brown on the outside, white on the inside”, with the play exploring what it’s like to live with certain expectations and how to live the life you want.
Rumi is a British Muslim, however she only follows some of the religion’s traditions to appease her family – she’d rather be free to drink alcohol, eat pork and stay away from the mosque. In a bid to find a Muslim man with the same mindset, she goes ‘Halal speed-dating’, but it’s an unmitigated disaster. Washing the memories away with booze afterwards, she gets talking to Simon and it’s clear they have a connection; he doesn’t realise that Rumi’s serious when they first met about him having to convert to Islam if they are to have a public relationship, though his mother’s death forces him to re-evaluate his priorities, and agrees to convert on principle to allow them to marry & keep Rumi’s family happy, not taking active part in the religion – but Rumi’s in for a shock when Simon’s curiosity gets the better of him, and takes it much more seriously than she could ever have anticipated…
It’s more important than ever that stories like this start to get told more often. Not only to educated non-Muslims further (considering the prevalence of this religion in Britain, we are woefully ignorance about it), but also so British Muslims can hear more stories like their own, and fuel greater diversity onstage & in the audience. The play is at its best when it goes for comedy, though there are a lot of in-jokes that can only really fly for people in the know (and leave others feeling like outsiders). This plays to the strength of its cast, as well as making the serious moments of drama more hard-hitting.
The staging us maybe a bit overambitious, with scene transitions taking a while sometimes – it might benefit from simplifying the set a little, just to make things flow a little more smoothly. The simple backdrop, with a lit-up outline of a cityscape, provides some beautiful moments (particularly when Rumi & Simon are out at night, looking at the stars); Baska Wesolowska’s designs complement the piece wonderfully.
Jimmy Carter is quite earnest as Simon, initially showing him as quite down to earth but his character gradually alters as he’s influenced more & more by his learning, and wish to be accepted by his new community. Tibu Fortes is a magnetic presence as Riz; highly entertaining and with exceptional comic delivery of some cracking lines. He also doubles well as the more reserved Imaam. It’s initially not that clear who Riz is, so that may be one element 9f the production that needs to be rethought slightly, but Fortes’ performance more than compensates for any confusion.
Kuran Dohil really does lead from the front, showing great strength and perseverance as Rumi. Dohil is also very, very funny, and definitely makes the most out of the brilliant one-liners her character is blessed with. It’s definitely refreshing to see a person like this being brought to life onstage, as she’s probably more representative of Muslims in Britain (male and female) than we might think.
My verdict? A refreshing & funny look at life for a proportion of British Muslims – an entertaining 90 minutes with some standout performances.