Writer: Iman Qureshi
Director: Hannah Hauer-King
Reviewer: Jim Gillespie
The Funeral Director reaches the final stage of a month-long regional tour and plays to a packed auditorium at HOME’s Theatre 2. Iman Qureshi’s play has been garlanded with praise in its early incarnations, and arrives in Manchester with expectations high.
Stated baldly, the premise for the drama could easily describe an updated Ealing comedy. A mismatched married Asian couple manage a specialist Muslim funeral service, which they have inherited. They are asked, by his white British boyfriend, to arrange the funeral of a Muslim youth who has committed suicide. They refuse, fearful of the possible backlash from their very traditional customers in the community. They are then sued for discrimination.
Scratch a comedy, and you will find a tragedy. The couple are having difficulties in their marriage, with the husband wanting a family, and the wife cool to the idea, and unresponsive to his romantic overtures. A former school friend of the wife reappears after 11 years, now a lesbian and Human Rights barrister. It is clear that the strength of the women’s affection was more profound than either had dared express in their youth. Asked to help defend the case, the lawyer is caught between her own moral principles, and her feelings for her friend.
This is serious subject-matter, and it is given serious treatment. But it is not without humour, and this works well. Struggling husband Zeyd tries to reignite the couple’s sex life by presenting his wife with a dildo for her birthday gift. This backfires predictably but very comically. Elsewhere his worship of his wife, and his longing for her love, are played out with great delicacy.
The four-strong cast work well together, with Aryana Ramkhalawon’s Ayesha anchoring almost every scene with poise and humanity. Assad Zaman manages to balance the sympathies of the audience while expressing views which the play otherwise sets out to challenge. Fairly traditional in his religious views, he has difficulty with modern acceptance of non-binary sexuality. Francesca Zoutewell plays Ayesha’s former school friend and unspoken love, Janey, with zest and charm, but also convinces when morphing into the hard-bitten London lawyer. Edward Stone, as Tom, plays a less central role, and yet his is the voice which speaks most directly of the hazards and hurts which come when love finds itself in conflict with religious certainty. He carries this weight with great grace.
The play is dramatic on so many levels, and clever on so many more, and is certainly well-written. But it seemed ill at ease on stage at HOME. The set seemed constrained in the space, and the actors clumsily made transitions between a mortuary on stage right, and an office on stage left, starkly differentiated by black duct tape markings on the floor. Lighting ostensibly created differentiations between the playing spaces, but these failed to focus the attention. Worst was when the front of the stage was used as a hospital corridor or street scene, with the interiors clearly visible in the background. Using side spots on Tom and Ayesha in their street encounter simply looked artificial: Rabbits in the headlights.
Above all, the stage lacks any private space for Ayesha and Zeyd to be, ironically, at home. So Zeyd hands over her birthday present in the office, and later the couple enact foreplay over the desk filing trays, while supposedly having their living quarters upstairs. The set’s naturalistic intent becomes a stranglehold on the narrative.
This is a very good play, and the fact that it still has staging imperfections should not distract from that. It is also brave enough to draw together some of the most difficult themes confronting our communities, to frame a morality which might be capable of accommodating them, without preaching or condescension, and to do so with much sympathy and humanity. Iman Qureshi has knitted fog into a snood.
Runs until 30th March 2019. | Image: Mihaela Bodlovic