The Ministry of Lesbian Affairs is a raucous, vibrant ensemble comedy, which discusses prominent issues of the day with equal parts panache and pathos.
Set in a dilapidated and decrepit building in the middle of Soho. An unlikely group of lesbians (and one bisexual) meet to sing outdated songs with gusto. The play follows these six women as they navigate through issues of lesbian invisibility, male violence, disability, race, trans rights, grief, loneliness and belonging.
We are introduced to Connie – a widow and tightly wound choir conductor; Fi – a person with restricted growth who is going through a messy and bitter divorce; Ellie the group’s resident flirt and lothario; Brig – transwoman and lawyer; Dina – a closeted and neglected Arabic housewife; Ana – a liberal post-colonial lecturer and her partner Lori a Black butch broadband engineer. Although, an ensemble production the character of Lori is undoubtedly the heartbeat of the play. Through her, the audience goes on a journey of discovery and acceptance as she opens up and shares the gift of her personhood and her voice. The choir has the opportunity to sing at the Pride parade in London. Unfortunately, due to a poor choice in wardrobe, their performance is cut short, and they receive a lifetime ban. The grief and fallout from this event ricochet throughout the group and culminates in its dissolution.
This play is messy, but so is life.
Qureshi’s writing is evocative, witty, and punchy. She is gifted at writing incisive and deliberate one-liners which are often delivered by Kiruna Stamell. Stamell’s delivers lines with such deadpan energy that you are barely aware that a giggle has escaped from your lips. The play is two and a half hours long (including the interval) and at times it feels like it. Partly, because it tries to deal with so many issues all at once: disability, race, trans rights, it leads to a level of weariness.
However, Qureshi’s ability to throw in a well-timed witticism alleviates some of this feeling. The audience was full of laughter from start to finish. That ability to go from pathos to polemic register, to humour is what makes this play. The third act is full of confrontations, the micro-fissures that have been bubbling underneath the surface of frivolity and kinship – crack. Suddenly, the deftness of Iman Qureshi’s writing is on show. One moment you are listening to a vitriolic speech about cisgender womanhood erasure, in the next you are empathising with a disabled woman whose sense of self has been eroded by society. Then, before you can catch your breath you are given a moment of relief by a quick quip and the tension is momentarily resolved.
Similarly, the use of musicality and song creates an avenue for the audience to rest during what is quite a heavy-themed play. Casting Director Nadine Rennie and Musical Directors Nicola T Chang and Victoria Calver did amazing jobs at choosing actors who not only sonically blended well together but had believable onstage chemistry. The singing choices were delightfully eclectic from Andre Rieu’s O Fortuna to Downtown by Petula Clark, and my personal favourite Pussy is God. Acting highlights for me were Kibong Tanji as Lori. Tanji’s calm understated energy lends itself to a character who is often at odds with herself and her relationships, and environment. I must mention Tanji’s rich soulful voice. Fanta Barrie’s vocals surprised me – clear, crisp, and pure. Much like her portrayal of love-starved Ellie who is earnestly seeking connection under all that bravado. I enjoyed Barrie’s performance immensely and how she embodied the character’s frenetic yet timid persona. As previously mentioned, Kiruna Stamell’s depiction of the slightly apathetic Fi was a delight to behold. Particularly in Act 3 when she finds her voice and passion, albeit in a destructive manner. It was truly engrossing.
In conclusion, Qureshi’s play is a whistle-stop tour of a multitude of lesbian experiences in 2022, whether you are an out, loud, and proud non-armpit shaving leftist. Or the semi-closeted, golden child, a horny sapphic, there is something for you. Qureshi pokes fun at queer women with all their foibles, the play is a love letter to lesbians everywhere, that despite our factions what unites us is more important than anything else.
The Ministry of Lesbian Affairs is on at Soho Theatre until 11th June.