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FringeReview UK 2018

Low Down

Papatango present the tenth winner of their annual competition. Hannah Hauer-King directs a production fleet with momentum. Jack Weir’s lighting deploys a steely morgue’s interiors, contrasted with a rosy warmth at the meet-and-greet end. Max Pappenheim’s sound suggests not what the protagonist Ayesha’s doing, as what she should be doing; singing. Flora Moyes’ costumes contrast Ayehsa’s subdued sartorial brilliance with everyone else’s functionality.


In just ninety minutes with four actors Iman Qureshi balances the clash of death, sexuality religious tradition and community in a riveting play with a singular setting. Papatango’s track record with emerging playwrights is richly proven here with the tenth winner of their annual competition. It crackles with themes and feelings that can change you.


The Funeral Director explores the impact on a British Muslim couple caught between losing their livelihood and possibly ostracisation, and doing the humane thing. It’s when a young white man, Tom explodes into their office asking for the burial of his Muslim friend, who’s committed suicide. Husband Zeyd isn’t as quick to realize as his wife Ayesha, that Tom and his partner are gay. Her alacrity’s notable. Zeyd offers to facilitate a Muslim funeral at Freddy’s Funerals, but subsequently Tom sues them for discrimination. One of the motifs is biscuits; Qureshi underscores parallels with the Belfast cake court case.


Amy Jane Cook’s split set in Southwark’s Little seems designed for dispatch. Set in traverse, it’s an open rectangle with sequenced top lighting. One end features a lived-in welcoming office, with cushions desk and a place for photos, a tranny wafting music. The other side’s a stark mortuary contrast of steel and tile where at the start director Aryana Ramkhalawon’s Ayesha folds towels around a dead baby.


Hannah Hauer-King has a gift for shaping awkwardly brilliant scripts, like Izzy Tennyson’s fizzy Grotty at the Bunker this May. So to direct a work as strong as this releases a production fleet with momentum. One whose intimate eddies speed self-revelation too. Jack Weir’s lighting for Milly Thomas’ Dust featured a steely morgue with shifting light: his deployment of that here gifts the same hollow white interiors, contrasted with a rosy warmth at the meet-and-greet end. Max Pappenheim’s sound suggests not what Ayesha’s doing, as what she should be doing; singing. Flora Moyes’ costumes contrast Ayehsa’s subdued sartorial brilliance with everyone else’s functionality. She’s the funeral director, inheriting the business from her mother.


It’s a superb scene. Tom Morley’s Tom is a rictus of desolation and almost panic his rejection – feeble excuses are seen for what they are – a portent. Morley’s grief is mesmerising. You fear his later appearance might become preachy but it doesn’t, just at the right point. And Qureshi uses his words in a repeat moment that neatly develops the climax.


Qureshi’s particularly fine at balancing complexities here. she makes us side with the conservative couple, partly as Ayesha’s not homophobic, brought out in Ramkhalawon’s agonized snappiness. Particularly when even the local MP gets involved: ’Once again… Muslims are failing to integrate into British culture…’ Set this against Zeyd’s eloquent ‘It’s their law, not ours. Our law is Allah’s law.’


And Maanuv Thiara’s Zeyd is gentle, empathic, non-abusive, wholly loving. When Ayesha’s mother was mangled in a car-crash, it’s he we learn who takes over, sparing Ayesha. He’s clearly desperate to accommodate something against his principles by facilitating Tom’s partner’s funeral elsewhere: it backfires. ‘And now Freddy’s thinks he can do Muslin funerals, we’ll lose business!’


Zeyd’s also singularly frustrated at Ayesha’s reluctance to contemplate a baby of her own as she tenderly releases the dead one into speculation of what might have been. His nearly-retracted birthday gift of a vibrator seems slightly out of character yet underlines what’s clear: Ayesha’s biting-off heads and sexual reluctance are linked. Thiara’s portrayal registers tenderness, flashes of patriarchal memory as he transmits community voices, and desolation. ‘We bury their sinning dead… our hands need to be clean.’


Ramkhalawon holds a carapace of edginess with occasional lurches into singing – and she’s always caught in that natural state by those who love her. Ramkhalawon ensures though that Ayesha’s gnawing emptiness dominates. Later this couple produce one of the most riveting few minutes of contemporary theatre I’ve seen all year.


There’s more confrontations with Jessica Clark’s Janey. At the hospital Ayesha Ayesha bumps into her old schoolfriend, not seen – they both intone – for eleven years. Now a London-based human-rights lawyer, Janey troubles Ayehsa. There’s a further cultural divide. Janey’s from an affluent background – she initially thinks Ayesha might be a doctor. Ayesha had no choice but to continue her mother’s business.


But can Janey help despite her disdain for the nature of Ayesha’s predicament? Clark’s urbanity hides Janey’s painful rejection by her mother, whom she’s visiting. Its nature slowly emerges.


Qureshi draws this quartet and its parallels together with assurance. If there’s few trios and no ensemble due to the plot, the Turgenev duetting flows naturally between characters leading to a heart-warming conclusion, not without a little heartbreak. Some might baulk at its neatness and symmetry, but we’re too inured to ragged ambiguities. Headlong compression into ninety minutes might threaten to turn key speeches into platforms, but Qureshi’s directions and actors like Tom Morley gentle that condition too.


It’s a moment when you recall Ibsen’s ‘In a tragedy, everyone is right.’ Not quite a tragedy and we know which side we’re on. Then it shifts. In a play freighted with dilemmas that indeed recall Ibsen, it’s not unfair to hope Qureshi might orchestrate conflicts involving more characters simultaneously. Meanwhile The Funeral Director should be seen by everyone who cares for theatre blazing with heart and difficulty. It’s density like this that endures.