It's probably not every nightclub waitress who gets her first Edinburgh
Festival Fringe play directed by a star of seminal TV sit-com, Friends.
That's exactly what happened to playwright and performer Sabrina
Mahfouz in 2011, however, when David Schwimmer, who played Ross in the
series for ten years, directed Mahfouz's own performance of Dry Ice, a
solo piece about a young stripper. However much 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
“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
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
commissioned by the Old Vic New Voices initiative, One Hour Only, 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 forty-eight 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
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., who 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
P.O.P. was partly inspired by Apples & 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
Snakes' territory, and is unequivocal in her praise for them.
“Apples & 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
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 Vinyard in New York.
All the while she was writing, Mahfouz worked full time in night-clubs,
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
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
“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, July 31-Aug 17, 6.10-7.10pm
The Herald, August 4th 2014