Set in a Midlands funeral parlour, Iman Qureshi’s award-winning play The Funeral Director revolves around Ayesha (Aryana Ramkhalawon) who shares a business, a home, and a life with husband Zeyd (Assad Zaman). The couple make a snap business decision based on their faith which has repercussions that change the course of both their lives, unlocking secrets that Ayesha had buried long ago.
When Tom (Edward Stone), a young white man, tries to arrange a traditional Muslim funeral for his boyfriend Ahad, the couple turn him away, telling him they are too busy to take the body. The pair never explicitly state their religious opposition towards the deceased’s homosexuality but they soon find themselves on the receiving end of a lawsuit from bereaved Tom, on the grounds of discrimination.
Amy Jane Cook’s staging provides an immersive experience for the audience. The stage is split in two, with the sterile mortuary on one side and the couple’s homely front room for receiving visitors on the other. It’s an effective tool which shows how easily life and death co-exist in the couple’s life and home. It also provides a sense of claustrophobia as the couple struggle with both the media attention and the pressure from the community at large which the lawsuit brings.
During the opening scenes, Ayesha and Zeyd demonstrate an easy, comfortable connection while hinting at the underlying tension. There’s clearly love between them, just no real sexual desire on Ayesha’s part. A chance encounter with old school friend Janey (Francesca Zoutewelle) reveals that Ayesha does indeed feel a deep passion – just not for her husband. Ramkhalawon and Zaman are strong performers, giving depth and complexity to their characters and the audience find their sympathies and loyalties shifting as the play progresses.
The piece examines huge themes – politics, sexuality, religion and family obligation but with a strong thread of dark humour throughout and without preaching. The only criticism is the play’s predictability, with the audience being constantly ahead of the action, which means that despite Hannah Hauer-King’s pacy direction, it takes an infuriatingly long time for our protagonist to confront her own sexuality. As a result, the ending feels almost rushed with some of the plot contrivances pushing credulity. Regardless, The Funeral Director is a powerful, thought-provoking 90 minutes of theatre, which shows great promise from all involved.