The Funeral Director  – Southwark Playhouse, London

Writer: Iman Qureshi

Director:  Hannah Hauer-King

Reviewer:  Richard Maguire

The Funeral Director is this year’s winner of the 2018 Papatango New Writing Prize, an award that guarantees the winner a full production of their play, and a £6,000 commission for another one. The setting, a Muslim funeral home, is definitely a novel location for London theatre, but Iman Qureshi’s story is, otherwise, a little too familiar.

Although there are some fascinating subplots, the main narrative thrust is a coming out story. Ayesha, a 27-year-old British Pakistani living in the Midlands, has hidden her lesbian desire since school, taking over the family business and marrying her school friend Zeyd. They don’t have sex, and while Zeyd makes plans to spice things up in the bedroom, Ayesha’s desire is reignited when she meets, after years, her best friend from school, Janey, now a barrister living in London. Janey is an out lesbian, and Ayesha begins to realise that her own trajectory isn’t as set as she thought.

Of course, homosexuality is still haram in Islamic law, and this play does break some new ground in showing lesbian desire within the Muslim community, but we never see Ayesha battle with her faith, or indeed, with the Muslim culture that must surround her as undertaker for the community. That battle is sublimated into another story about Ayesha and Zeyd’s refusal to prepare the body of an openly gay Muslim man. Coming so soon after the ‘gay cake row’ in Northern Ireland, where a Christian bakery refused to make a cake with a slogan supporting gay marriage, this plot in The Funeral Director is the most interesting and topical. In comparison, Ayesha’s coming out story is too predictable.

As Ayesha, Aryana Ramkhalawon is always believable, as is her stubbornness in most matters. Zeyd is a complex character, and Maanuv Thiara has to navigate from a protector of funeral rites to a coarse homophobe, who calls gay men ‘kuffars’, roughly translated as ‘infidels’. It’s a credit to Thiara’s acting that Zeyd, too, is believable despite these shifting stances. As the openly gay Janey and Tom, Jessica Clark and Tom Morley try to bring life to simplistic characters, where gay equals good, and nothing more. Qureshi should bestow the complexities of Ayesha and Zeyd onto Tom and Janey, giving them interior lives too.

Under Hannah Hauer-King’s smooth direction, The Funeral Director is played in traverse, a funeral home competently portrayed by Amy Jane Cook’s set. However, most of the action seems to take place in the reception area of the funeral home, meaning that a good deal of the audience is rewarded with stiff necks, and the backs of actors. Scene changes seem a little overlong, but Max Pappenheim’s sound design, which mixes Eastern voices with Western beats, is a stimulating diversion.

The Funeral Director has the potential to be a bigger play, tackling the controversial issues in greater detail. At the moment, with its 90-minute running time, Qureshi’s play is more a snapshot of Ayesha’s life. Still, this examination of lesbian desire in a community that forbids it, will give heart to many.

Runs until 24 November 2018 | Image: The Other Richard

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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