In the wake of the much publicised ‘gay cake’ ruling at the UK Supreme Court – in which a Christian-owned Belfast bakery refused a customer’s ‘Support Gay Marriage’ cake order – Iman Qureshi’s The Funeral Director bravely explores the intersection of religious freedom, culture and LGBTQI rights in modern Britain. The play is set almost entirely at a Muslim funeral parlour in the Midlands run by a young married couple, Ayesha and Zeyd (Aryana Ramkhalawon and Maanuv Thiara).
Despite the weight of its themes, there is plenty of sharp, dark comedy to enjoy here.
Already struggling financially and concerned at the potential reaction of the local Muslim community, the couple turn away Tom (Tom Morley); a distraught gay man seeking an Islamic burial for his Muslim boyfriend following an apparent overdose. As Tom threatens legal action, Ayesha turns to an old school friend and human rights lawyer, Janey (Jessica Clark), for support, and in the process is forced to confront repressed conflicts in her own identity.
Iman Qureshi’s play is commencing a four-week run at the Southwark Playhouse after beating fierce competition to win the 10th annual Papatango New Writing Prize earlier this year. The inherent intimacy of the Playhouse feels appropriate for this production. Staged with its audience in shallow rows either side of a realistic funeral parlour set, the proximity allows the cast to deliver naturalistic performances, and places the audience uncomfortably as voyeuristic intruders on their experiences.
The four characters represented on stage are both constrained and motivated by pressure from unseen external parties (such as bigoted family members, traditional communities and liberal activists). Much of the play’s narrative navigates their attempts to reconcile themselves with the conflicting and evolving expectations of a plural society. The emotional impact of this is effectively used by Qureshi to question religious and cultural orthodoxy, without directly challenging the merits of scripture or custom.
The characterisation is such that all points of view are however portrayed with empathy and care. Qureshi avoids well-trodden stereotypes to present Zeyd as a dedicated and compassionate modern husband, desperate to recover his marriage but ill-equipped to deal with the unfamiliar. His predilection towards traditional family values is driven by genuine love for Ayesha and pragmatic concerns over the future of their business.
The performances from all four cast members are excellent.
Despite the weight of its themes, there is plenty of sharp, dark comedy to enjoy here. From the opening scene, we find ourselves needing to adjust quickly to the inherent gallows humour of the funeral parlour setting, as Ayesha and Zeyd weave jokes about a dead baby’s unrealised career potential into a discussion on their own plans for parenthood (“She’d be an ambassador for Muslims. Like that Malala. Only not so annoying”).
The performances from the four cast members are excellent. With so much of her character’s true feelings left unspoken, Aryana Ramkhalawon betrays Ayesha’s internal torment with skilful restraint.