Naked truths: the drama of the strip club

Sabrina Mahfouz based her show on her own experiences, she tells Emma Love

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The Independent Culture

When award-winning poet and playwright Sabrina Mahfouz wrote her debut one-woman show, Dry Ice, based on her time waitressing in a strip club while she was at university, little did she know that David Schwimmer would end up directing it. "When Dry Ice was written I didn't have a director, it was just me talking and sitting on a chair. Since I started writing two-and-a-half years ago David has read all my work and he said he wanted to get involved. He made me feel more comfortable embodying the characters rather than performing them just through speech," recalls 28-year-old, London-based Mahfouz of the actor she first met through her friend, Zoe Buckman.

Then a fellow nightclub waitress, Buckman is now Schwimmer's wife, and a photographer with whom Mahfouz is collaborating on a series of installations that they hope to exhibit together one day.

"We decide on one of my poems to present and then Zoe interprets it through photography. Sometimes the poem will be etched onto the image; sometimes the poem just accompanies it." Several of the poems they've worked on are from Dry Ice, which is written in a performance-poetry style. It has also inspired a short film that Mahfouz is developing for Film 4, and, following performances at the Edinburgh Festival, she has a forthcoming run at the Bush theatre in London.

The storyline pivots around a stripper called Nina. At one point, she goes to a dinner party with P, her half art-dealer, half drug-dealer, boyfriend where she tells attention-grabbing stories about the world of stripping.

"You see the stereotypical stripper profile on the television which says, 'this is what it's like to be a stripper'. There are elements of that: you see what the customers are like and the things they might say, but the play tries to go a bit deeper and show how Nina's life continues outside the strip club. It asks how much these worlds collide and where the crossover starts and ends,' she reflects. Many of the characters Mahfouz acts out started life as notes she took while waitressing. "I wanted to go into politics but I liked writing on the side so I spent a lot of time in the background observing. Once I got into theatre I remembered my notes. I'd written poems about that world already so it seemed a natural place to start a play." In fact, Mahfouz, who studied classics and English literature at the University of London before doing an MA in international politics and diplomacy, only thought of writing professionally when she was asked to give up her Egyptian passport (her father is half Egyptian and lives there) in order to progress in her Government policy-adviser job.

She left and, after a stint in journalism, moved into poetry and then the theatre. She did the Royal Court's Young Writers "Unheard Voices" for British Muslims programme, producing End of the Line, a showcase of short plays with other writers from the group. Since then she has written everything from a mini-opera for the Royal Opera House, to Sirens, a work-in-progress adaptation of three ancient Greek texts.

Her second solo show, Zainab Chloe Katya, about "underground clean criminals who do things that don't directly hurt people but are still naughty", will have its first outing at this year's Latitude festival, where she's headlining the poetry arena on the Sunday.

"It's like a computer game in the form of a long poem," she explains. There's also a novel and several short stories in the pipeline, plus One Hour Only, set in an upmarket brothel, and which will be part of the Old Vic New Voices inaugural season of work at this year's Edinburgh Festival.

'Dry Ice', Bush Theatre, London W12 (020 8743 5050) 8 to 12 May