Playwriting prizes tend to throw up stuff like this: compact, tightly written dramedies that have tender hearts and more ethical knots than a severely peanutted school tie, but that are often a bit too schematic, a bit too issue-driven for their own good. Iman Qureshi’s The Funeral Director – this year’s winner of the £6,000 Papatango Prize, beating 1383 other entries – is all of these things.
The Big Debate here is the conflict between freedom of religion and freedom of sexuality. Remember that Bible-bashing Belfast bakery that refused to make a cake for a gay couple a while back? Well, it’s easy to imagine Qureshi was inspired by that little episode – except here it’s not Christian cooks that refuse to bake a cake, it’s a married couple, Zeyd and Ayesha, running a Muslim funeral parlour that refuse to bury a body. And we’re in Derby, not Northern Ireland. And Ayesha is also secretly a lesbian, which makes things a bit more complicated. Particularly when her high school crush shows up.
Qureshi neatly patchworks the plot together in a series of intimate scenes. Hannah Hauer-King’s production is pacy and proficient, swiftly shifting between scenes on Amy Jane Cook’s part-office, part-mortuary transverse set, intelligently lit by Jack Weir. The four-strong cast are decent, even if they overact a teensy bit when things get dicey. Tom Morley has a very impressive cry as a grieving boyfriend. Aryana Ramkhalawon’s Ayesha wrestles convincingly with her affection for her husband and her true sexuality. And Maanuv Thiara is good as Zeyd, a decent enough bloke whose hardline religion turns him into a bit of a dick.
It’s got a few tame chuckles, it’s moderately moving, particularly in the later scenes when Zeyd and Ayesha’s marriage starts collapsing around them, and it’s got plenty of moral meat to sink your teeth into. But it’s also pretty clinical, pretty manipulative, and pretty clear what’s going to happen from the off. Qureshi sets up the requisite ethical dominoes, then tumbles them into one another. You can see exactly how they’ll fall. Very clever, yes, and very worthy. But about as three-star as they come.