The Funeral Director review: engrossing drama unearthing the tension between religion and sexuality


27th March 2019 • HOME, Manchester

1. The Funeral Director - Aryana Ramkhalawon (Ayesha) - Photo by Mihaela Bodlovic.jpg
Aryana Ramkhalawon as Ayesha. Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic

It feels especially pertinent to stage Iman Qureshi’s play during the current climate in which the relationship between religious conservatism and sexual liberty seems at its most fraught. In her play, Qureshi depicts the fallout after the eponymous funeral directors reject a man’s request due to prejudicial suspicions about his sexuality.

This central debate runs alongside several other contrasts. The play opens with the wife, Ayesha, entering with a baby tenderly held in her arms. But what briefly appears emblematic of new life is soon revealed to be a dead body she is preparing for a funeral. Qureshi uses such juxtapositions to complicate her presentation of social issues; they are never clear-cut, there’s always opposition.

As much as this makes for an engrossing, often challenging play, it leaves the actors with the task of reconciling the cognitive dissonance of their characters. Assad Zaman, as the husband Zeyd, strikingly portrays how love and religious piety can fuse into a tyrannical regime to suppress his wife into an idealised religious prototype. Zaman’s performance also encapsulates the contradictions of a strictly conservative Muslim who will still resort to sex toys to revive his stagnant sex life.

Aryana Ramkhalawon, however, is less accomplished as Ayesha. Her reliance on scornful glares and affronted pouting reduces her defiant resistance to mere petulance. There is also little vocal colour or emotional nuance to fully convey the complexity of her internal struggle. She consequently translates as unlikable for much of the early scenes, rather than the sympathetic victim of oppressive religious doctrine. Ayesha’s plight is integral to the play’s polemic, though it is also not particularly difficult to guess how the plot will unfold as the surprise revelation is telegraphed early on.

The best performance comes from Francesca Zoutewelle as childhood friend Janey. She brings warmth and humour, as well as subtly implying her attachment to Ayesha. Although her character is slightly one-dimensional as the crusading hero of liberal humanitarianism, she neatly offsets the intolerance of religious fundamentalism. Likewise, Edward Stone plays Tom, whom the funeral directors turned away, with so much righteous superiority that his just criticisms against them are not as easy to fully align with.

Fortunately, director Hannah Hauer-King’s gentle pace allows all of these debates to be mulled over. She sensitively gives equal weighting to the voices of the Muslim community as much as to the flaws within some of their beliefs, while ensuring neither side overpowers. If this production is funereal, it is the poignancy of its reverently sombre reflection on division within social community.