The Funeral Director @ Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

A study of acceptance, atonement and turmoil, The Funeral Director is a charged, thought-provoking piece

Review by Carmen Paddock | 13 Mar 2019

The conflict of faith, morals, and justice at the heart of Iman Qureshi's The Funeral Director is less compelling than its depiction of inner turmoil, self-acceptance, and atonement.

Directed by Hannah Hauer-King, this co-production between English Touring Theatre and Papatango – less than a year out from its London premiere – is not a comfortable watch. Conjuring sympathy for funeral home owner Ayesha and her husband and co-worker Zeyd after they turn away Tom, a young man wanting to give his dead boyfriend a proper Muslim funeral, is difficult – even considering how quickly their small Northern town picks up their story as an attack on British values. However, going into the play expecting a both-sides approach does Qureshi’s exploration of personal reckonings and the ugly weight of mistakes a disservice. There is never a doubt that the homophobic decision is a bad one; the handling of its aftermath provides the nuance and conflict.

The familiar and versatile kitchen sink set-up serves the modern personal and political stakes very well, allowing the personal toll Ayesha’s choice takes on the four characters – Ayesha, Zeyd, Tom, and former school friend Janey – our full attention. The sour atmosphere created by this snap decision and its immediate backlash pushes the full weight of its life-altering consequences to the foreground – the depiction may not be free from judgement, but it is free from vengeance. All four characters’ nastier sides are shown unsoftened yet coexisting with genuine kindness, warmth, and compassion that sell the truth, if not sympathy, of their struggles.

The dialogue and actions sometimes veer towards melodrama, somewhat hollowing the emotional truth of these moral and familial dilemmas. The actors, however, fully commit to each characters’ recent and remembered traumas. Aryana Ramkhalawon – almost constantly present on stage – fully fleshes out Ayesha, conveying the young woman’s diligence in her job, playfulness when alone, and brittle doubts behind her strong, grounded façade as she reckons with her faith in the face of her actions and suppressed sexuality.

By the conclusion of The Funeral Director, forgiveness might be beyond the characters (and possibly the audience), but hope, honesty, and empathy are within reach. Ultimately, this unflinching text is a charged, thought-provoking piece with relevance beyond its geographic and cultural setting.  

The Funeral Director @ Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, run ended. Touring to Nottingham Playhouse, 14-16 Mar; North Wall, Oxford, 21 Mar; HOME, Manchester, 27-30 Mar