Leela Varghese is Lebanese-Indian, and was raised in Bundaberg, which – by some accounts of Australia’s regions – mightn’t have been much fun. Shabana Azeez’s parents are Indian but from Fiji, meaning that sub-continental Indians look down on them.
But disapproval can even come from your own community; absorb too much “western” culture and you could earn an obnoxious label. This inspired Varghese and Azeez to name their musical-comedy duo “The Coconuts” – explained by their debut show’s title: Brown on the Outside, White on the Inside.
Our performers formed their act in Adelaide, and their show had a sold-out run at the 2023 Adelaide Fringe. The resulting Melbourne Fringe Tour Ready Award has supported The Coconuts’ first trip beyond SA, and the pair display a polish not often seen in a newish act.
There’s a stereotype that girls from certain cultures should be dainty and raised to be obliging and polite women. Whilst Varghese and Azeez might initially seem to conform to this tradition, it’s soon clear that they’ve got a snarky edge. If you slight them, they will mess with your family to get back at you.
The show’s blurb says it’s “R rated” – which is probably overstating the naughtiness here for a Fringe audience. However, the show is certainly more racy than a naïve fringe-goer might expect from the PG timeslot.
Material about racism starts the show, including some novel use of a video screen. This tried to explain how some celebrities should be placed on a matrix of appearance and behaviour, ranging from brown to white.
A Fringe audience at a show like this is probably less familiar with racist tropes than the general public. As such, dropping us straight into some characterisations here might be more likely to introduce negative stereotypes than challenge them.
Surprisingly, the pair have other topics to talk about, which could be inspired by serious matters, such as sexism in the arts. Other tracks were appealing through just being plain silly, with further assistance from the screen. The pair sing well and their harmonies are sweet, even if some lyrics aren’t – but they led to some big laughs.
Varghese is very capable on guitars acoustic and electric, and adds further novelty through a Japanese synth guitar from the 1980s. Their appearance is also a kind of activism, showing that you can be brown of the Asian kind, and it’s still ok to be queer or go talk to a counsellor.
Whilst some gags could have a stronger finish, this is a very impressive outing. Whilst the duo have the kind of short season that an “up-and-coming” act might have, they’ve shot beyond that category. Take your chance to take the rough with the smooth from these Coconuts and you’ll set yourself up for a quality night.
The Coconuts – Brown on the Outside, White on the Inside
Festival Hub: Trades Hall – Music Room, Lygon and Victoria Streets, Carlton
Performance: Thursday 12 October 2023
Season: 11 – 15 October 2023 (ended)
Image: The Coconuts – photo by Maxim Varghese
Review: Jason Whyte