Since it launched 2011, the Papatango New Writing Award has a knack for finding exciting theatrical gems, elevating voices that often feel marginalized. I had the privilege of seeing their first winner, the ice-cold thriller Foxfinder (a piece that has only gained relevance since its initial staging), and am thrilled to see they are still producing sterling work. Their latest production, The Funeral Director, feels particularly grounded in an underrepresented community, and makes a fascinating inclusion to a pertinent conversation.
The play centres on a Muslim funeral parlour run by Ayesha and Zeyd. In an attempt to keep with their community's values and faith, they make a choice to turn away a young man who seeks their services to bury his boyfriend. This causes a confrontation that has both public and private ramifications that resonate long after their snap decision.
Iman Qureshi writing skilfully packs The Funeral Director with a wealth of issues, offering a compelling conversation on modern sexuality, gender and religion. It is easy to see why this play was the winner of over a thousand submissions. Qureshi is aided by a quartet of performers who give compelling, deeply human performances, giving the play a refreshing complexity. Aryana Ramkhalawon's Ayesha is the show's beating heart, producing a touching turn that convincingly portrays the anguish her character is going through. There are equally good performances from the likes of Assad Zaman's Zeyd, both a source of much of The Funeral Director's early humour and its latter serious turn, and Francesca Zoutewelle as Janey, a returning friend who changes the couple's dynamic. Zoutewelle is the kind of performer who brings warmth and energy to the stage, lifting every scene she is in. Edward Stone's Tom feels narratively underserved, with only his final appearance really adding any depth to an admittedly moving turn. One wishes The Funeral Director was slightly longer, to give it more room to breathe. Some of the character developments feel rushed, particularly noticeable when the play addresses more sensitive subjects.
It is always exciting to see new theatre talent emerge. The Funeral Director is an accomplished piece of new writing, expertly directed by Hannah Hauer-King. The production itself is a very good one, using the North Wall's terrific space well. The set is beautifully banal, encompassing the front and back offices of the funeral parlour. And Qureshi's text is deeply impactful, finding a resonance in its final moments that lingers long after the curtain call. Long may Papatango continue with their pursuit for terrific new writing; they've found another chunk of theatre gold.