It’s a strange concept: a play based on a movie script, and an awful script at that. Mark Ravenhill’s 2005 comedy Product, is essentially a pitch for the screenplay Mohammed and Me, a 9/11-inspired drama fuelled by Islamic paranoia and built on a foundation of appalling writing and characterisation. The paradox here of course, is that to knowingly write a bad script, and to bring out the humour in that, is no mean feat, and Ravenhill’s talent in doing this is undeniable. It makes for a play which is both a laugh-a-minute, and probably still as relevant today as it ever has been.
Product is a one-woman show. The woman in question, played here by the fantastic Olivia Poulet (of Sherlock and The Thick of It fame) is Leah, whose mission it is to sell this highly dubious script. Her invisible interlocutor (in essence us, the audience) is Amy, a high-profile actor to whom the pitch is being made. Poulet’s character embodies everything wrong with the Hollywood stereotype: she’s conceited, has terrible taste and is utterly self-absorbed. All essential qualities if you’re to take Mohammed and Me at all seriously.
The script, which she leads us through in great depth, begins on an aeroplane, where our protagonist finds herself sat next to a Muslim man, the eponymous Mohammed. She watches as he opens his croissant with a knife—a knife!—and what she assumes to be his yoga mat in the overhead storage is none other than, shock horror, a prayer mat. This is, in the eyes of the protagonist and the movie, a cause for terror. As the story of the protagonist’s relationship with this man unravels we are taken to ridiculous extremes. Think suicide bombing, Guantanamo and Bin Laden, and you won’t be far off.
This is driven by the protagonist’s surprising affection for Mohammed, which turns to love of the most intense kind, yet she is torn between her feelings and her inner suspicion (which turns out to be true, of course) that he and his faith represent something evil. This relationship, where she falls for the alluring charm of evil, is a kind of ludicrous straw-man, a pathetic and superficial of attempt to engage with serious issues, which is very funny to watch.
It’s hard to give a sense of just how hilariously bad this movie, the script within a script, really is. At the heart of the humour is the hysterical Islamophobia which underpins it, and is quite true of a certain type of American outlook, especially in the movie world (think American Sniper, perhaps). For instance Mohammed is consistently described as “dusky” in the thoughts of the main character. A word which in context somehow manages to capture all of the film’s barely-subdued suspicions about the murky and sinister nature of Muslims. It’s first-rate parody, and doesn’t let up at all during the performance.
And what a performance it is. Poulet, along with anyone doing a one person show, has the tough task of maintaining a high level of energy for an hour, whilst making the material seem varied enough to keep us interested. She makes it look remarkably easy, and in a play so packed full of jokes, and good ones at that, she lands almost all of them. A task made even harder by the fact that really all the play consists of is her explaining the contents of a script. In theory this sound a little awkward, but she handles the tricky task of reading another script with passion, but without actually performing that script per-se, with real skill.
There’s nothing revolutionary about the play, and I don’t feel that there’s some deep meaning underlying the comedy, but in a way that’s refreshing. It’s a comedy largely for comedy’s sake, which never over-reaches and is simply very, very funny. If you’re going to judge a comedy on anything, it ought to be that. It’s a great example of how to make a one-person show work, and both Poulet and Ravenhill deserve tremendous credit. At the end of the day, you can’t beat good writing.