Ovalhouse Theatre, London – until 28 April 2018
In 2017 I reviewed Bunker Theatre’s Bechdel Testing Life, which featured a range of fabulous female-led and created productions but The Thelmas’ Friends, Football Friends stood out in particular. I adored Kuran Dohil as the teenager out to piss off her mother by wearing a hijab and her portrayal as a mouthy teen. When I heard that writer Guleraana Mir and director Madeleine Moore were reuniting with the actress again in Coconut my heart skipped a beat.
I feel a resonance with stories of being a person of colour in a white environment. Dohil’s Rumi enjoys booze and bacon but also wants to find a nice fellow Muslim who she will understand her family and watch Bollywood movies with her. After a disastrous Halal dating night where she fails to find a fellow Coconut or even a man who looks like Raza Jaffrey and Riz Ahmed combined, she ends up in the pub talking to a white man called Simon (Jimmy Carter) all while wrestling her inner voice Riz (Tibu Fortes). I wasn’t entirely sure of Riz’s role; was it her inner brown voice or her white voice (?) but it provided comic relief in a tale that went unexpectedly dark.
Rumi juggles her cultural expectations as a Muslim along with her indifference to Islam as a religion. It is crucial that Simon, who has just lost his mother, convert to her culture for them to marry, but when Simon embraces the religion with much more vigour than she ever has Rumi feels alienated. It is hard to feel sorry for Rumi as it is clear she wants the best of both her worlds; family acceptance for choosing a white man but a rebellious nature which means she chooses white men over Pakistanis (who are also choosing white men over her).
Dohil is a great comic actress and she’s really got to grips with the complex character of Rumi alongside Carter as Simon, whose embracing of Islam is in keeping with the vulnerability we see throughout an act he does for someone else which ends up becoming a choice he is fully active in. Fortes also provides support as their Imam, though the character feels underdeveloped and doesn’t provide any conflict.
The ending didn’t feel as smooth as it should have done, despite being a very funny play Rumi’s stand-up set at the end is awkward and lacking in laughs. I struggled to believe that this character would be so poor as a stand-up and Simon coming to find her just felt unnecessary.
This is a strong piece of work and it makes you question the sacrifices all make in their relationships and whilst cultural and religious Christianity/Jewishness is a common concept I hope this play serves a reminder that being Muslim, doesn’t necessarily mean you are Islamist.