• Text size      
  • Send this article to a friend
  • Print this article

Straight-talking storyteller serves up a slice of life inside

It's not every nightclub waitress who gets her first Edinburgh Festival Fringe play directed by a star of seminal TV sit-com, Friends.

not PORRIDGE: Jade Anouka takes the lead in Chef, the story of a high-flying cook who winds up as a convicted criminal running the prison kitchen. Picture: Richard Davenport
not PORRIDGE: Jade Anouka takes the lead in Chef, the story of a high-flying cook who winds up as a convicted criminal running the prison kitchen. Picture: Richard Davenport

But that's exactly what happened to playwright and performer Sabrina Mahfouz in 2011, when David Schwimmer, who played Ross in the series for 10 years, directed Mahfouz's own performance of Dry Ice, a solo piece about a young stripper. However, much as such an association may have helped catch an audience's eye, it was the writing that mattered in what was a raw mix of streetwise spoken-word delivered from the hip.

Three years on, and Mahfouz is preparing for her new play, Chef.

Another solo piece, Chef focuses on a high-flying haute cuisine cook who ends up as a convicted criminal running the prison kitchen. Such mixing and matching of contrasting worlds comes from Mahfouz's own first-hand observations.

"I was working at this beautiful restaurant in London," says the British-Egyptian writer/performer. "I was working in the bar area, but used to sneak through to the restaurant bit, because the quiet in there was really beautiful, and I decided then that I wanted to write something about that world.

"I also had a friend who passed away, who worked a lot in women's prisons. I was doing poetry workshops with women within the prison system as well, and I read a lot of things written by the women. While there was a lot of stuff that was troubling, one of the things that kept on coming up was how crap the food was, which I thought was funny, and these two worlds just kind of came together."

Mahfouz is one of a new generation of female writers who have developed out of a fertile spoken-word scene, and who have increasingly applied estuarised hip-hop patois to dramatic narrative. While very different writers, Mahfouz's peers include Hollie McNish and Kate Tempest, whose performance of her own solo show, Brand New Ancients, fused politically inspired classicism and multi-cultural street talk even more overtly than in Mahfouz's work.

Mahfouz's 2012 follow-up play to Dry Ice, the brothel-set two-hander One Hour Only - commissioned by the Old Vic New Voices initiative - led the Traverse to commission her the same year for the theatre's Dream Plays season of hot-off-the-press short works. Mahfouz's response was Clean, which set up a trio of female computer game avatars who sparred in rhyming couplets in an adventure yarn that resembled Greek tragedy reinvented for a slam poetry night. With Dream Plays going on to win a Herald Angel, Clean went on to a full production as part of Oran Mor's A Play, A Pie and A Pint season of lunchtime theatre before travelling to New York.

"I had 48 hours to write Clean," says Mahfouz. "It was performed at such a fast pace that when we went to New York as part of Brits on Broadway, I think a lot of people found it difficult to understand."

One of the three women performing in Clean was Jade Anouka, who now takes the lead in Chef.

"I was doing poems from Chef at performances," says Mahfouz, "but it was such an intense piece of writing, I thought I'd better get a proper trained actor to do it."

Beyond her own writing, Mahfouz is also the founder of Poetry on Production, or P.O.P., a new body designed to work with poets to create theatre shows which are poetry or spoken-word led.

"I just wanted to try and get poetry produced in different places and in different forms," Mahfouz says of the rise of P.O.P., which will be producing another spoken-word show in Edinburgh, Shame, by John Berkavitch. This mixture of spoken-word, hip hop, dance and animation inspired Kate Tempest to declare Shame the best spoken-word show she'd ever seen.

P.O.P. was partly inspired by Apples and Snakes, who have been promoting performance poetry in England since 1982, a time when poets were regular fixtures at alternative cabaret nights in much the same way they are now. Mahfouz is in no way trying to muscle in on Apples and Snakes' territory, and is unequivocal in her praise for them.

"Apples and Snakes are legends, and supported everything I did at the start of my career," she says, "but the scene is growing so much, with so many people coming forward, that no-one is stepping on people's toes."

Mahfouz began writing and performing in earnest after quitting a civil service fast-track graduates' scheme because she didn't want to give up her Egyptian passport. After a stint with the Royal Court Young Writers Group, Mahfouz's first theatre piece, That Boy, was performed at Soho Theatre, where it won the Westminster playwriting prize. Mahfouz worked at cutting-edge spaces including Battersea Arts Centre and Contact, Manchester, as well as at the Royal Opera House and an exchange visit with the Vineyard in New York.

All the while she was writing, Mahfouz worked full time in nightclubs, bars and restaurants.

"Everything I've ever written has always been influenced by those worlds," she says. "That was where most of my friendships were made."

It was in one club where she met Schwimmer.

"My friend married him, and he was really supportive about my work."

While One Hour Only and Clean made waves, winning a Sky Arts fellowship has allowed Mahfouz to get back to her writing roots .

"It's really exciting for me, she says, "because Chef is the first piece I've done since Dry Ice that's been completely my own project. Not that anyone's ever tried to shape me. It's just that being able to write without having to worry what anyone thinks has given me an extra freedom."

Beyond Chef, Mahfouz is working on a pilot for Sky TV about sex workers, while a new piece for the Bush based around Garage, "the music I grew up with", is ongoing. Mahfouz has also written a young people's play for the National Theatre Connections about free speech in Egypt.

With such a busy schedule, Mahfouz's profile looks set to rise considerably.

"I just see stories wherever I go," she says, "and I feel that sometimes the sort of stories that are heard the most aren't necessarily the ones I want to hear. If I can do anything that can help challenge that or bring out stories that aren't heard as much, then so much the better."

Chef, Underbelly, to Aug 17,

www.sabrinamahfouz.com www.underbelly.co.uk

Contextual targeting label: 
Arts and Entertainment

Commenting & Moderation

We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis.
If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well and trust you then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules

Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.

252406