Ministry matters

The Ministry of Lesbian Affairs magazine: fun, acerbic and moving if a little awkward

J

he first two-thirds of Iman Qureshi’s happy comedy about a lesbian choir could roughly translate to a British feel-good movie, like The Full Monty or Military Wives. The final track has a tougher side: most of the mismatched characters have a moment in the spotlight to voice passionate opinions about how race, disability, and trans rights impact the lives of queer women. The plot and characterization are heavy and Hannah Hauer-King’s production isn’t exactly subtle, but overall it’s a charming, funny and inclusive piece of work, augmented by a cappella versions of songs ranging from Carmina Burana to Downtown by Petula Clark.

It starts with Kibong Tanji’s broadband engineer Lori fixing Dina’s router for Lara Sawalha, a wealthy but aggressively flirtatious Qatari with an overbearing husband and two kids. Dina suspects that she is gay and wants to meet women: by chance, Lori is about to be dragged into a lesbian singing session by her partner Ana (Claudia Jolly), in an attempt to save a relationship that is in danger. at seven years old. Lori is black and has not come out to her observant family, while Ana is white, bisexual, and a lecturer in post-colonialism and queer studies. See what I mean about clumsiness?

Rounding out the chorus are promiscuous Ellie (Fanta Barrie), trans woman Brig (Mariah Louca), and Fi (Kiruna Stamel), who is a growth-restricted person and the most complex and interesting figure on stage. They are harassed by the jolly-hockey-sticks choir Connie, a self-proclaimed owl (older, wiser lesbian). The vocal warm-ups are great fun, the singing voices smooth and harmonious yet believable and ordinary. But the increasingly elusive state of their rehearsal room is a metaphor for the fault lines that fracture the choir and the wider lesbian community.

Lara Sawalha plays Dina and Fanta Barrie plays Ellie

/ Helen Murray

Although created as cookie-cutter receptacles for important issues, the characters are alive – especially Tanji’s warm-hearted Lori and Stamell’s feisty Fi – and, more importantly, fun. Though sketchy, Qureshi’s writing has an acerbic wit as it tears through the truisms of same-sex female relationships: cats, wearing fleece, visiting Ikea. Ellie is criticized for sleeping with straight women. “The girl has to eat,” she counters. Fi’s drunken speech raging against the world is terrific writing and a thrilling portrayal of a disabled gay woman.

Qureshi asks what it says about life for queer women in the UK if there’s “a rainbow flag in every shop window, but no lesbian bars” in most cities. Her play boldly tackles issues of transphobia and homophobia, yet she is generous and open-minded. After playing a series of rude and hostile idiots, the only man in the cast, Fayez Bakhsh is redeemed by the role of a kind and clumsy workman, offering a tearful Ana a handkerchief while asking her if she has any ” boy problems”. And when the scattered and angry characters come together to sing Bridge Over Troubled Water, it’s deeply moving.

Soho Theatre, until June 11, sohotheatre.com