Words: Simon Button; Images: Helen Murray
Written by Iman Qureshi, The Ministry of Lesbian Affairs is very much a play of two halves. The first act is jocular and often laugh-out-loud funny whilst the second is more serious and sniffles-inducing. And if the two acts don’t gel well, with Act Two seeking to tackle too many issues for its own good, it is still an engaging and thought-provoking work that had myself and everyone around me in tears by the end.
The ministry of the title isn’t a ministry at all. It’s the country’s only all-lesbian choir, which meet in a dilapidated hall where the roof leaks, you have to stand on a box to flick the lights on and the members are constantly bemoaning the fact that while there’s a rainbow flag in every shop window all the lesbian bars have long since gone out of business.
As Kiruna Stamell’s fed-up Fi puts it, bars, reality TV and Hampstead Heath are for gay men whilst “lesbians are practically invisible”.
Back row (left-right): Shuna Snow, Claudia Jolly, Mariah Louca, Fanta Barrie; Middle row (left-right): Kibong Tanji, Lara Sawalha; Front: Kiruna Stamell
At choir practice, though, they’re a visible and vivid bunch, presided over by frightfully posh conductor Connie (Shuna Snow), who declares herself an OWL (older wiser lesbian) as she makes such faux pas as pronouncing Jay-Z as Jay-Zed like someone out of a Victoria Wood sketch.
Ellie (Fanta Barrie) is the choir flirt, Brig (Mariah Louca) is a trans woman trying to figure out where she fits in, Lori (Kibong Tanji) has her own dilemmas as the black and butch girlfriend of bisexual Ana (Claudia Jolly), and Dina (Lara Sawalha) is a Muslim desperate to explore her sexuality but who daren’t leave her abusive husband lest she be deported.
They all come together in perfect harmony, singing ‘I Got Rhythm’ and ‘Downtown’ in a really funny first half that plays like Sister Act meets The Full Monty as the choir is picked to open Pride. But it goes sour when one of them wears a T-shirt that appears to be transphobic. Banned from Pride for life, they also start to squabble as all their sore points are exposed.
Back row (left-right): Kiruna Stamell, Mariah Louca, Claudia Jolly; Front row (left-right): Lara Sawalha, Fanta Barrie, Kibong Tanji
Qureshi bravely grapples not just with transphobia but also homophobia, bullying, racism, stigmas around bisexuality and disability, the lack of safe spaces for queer women and the criminalisation of homosexuality in other countries.
That’s a lot for one play to take on and the second act is over-reliant on long speeches, albeit ones that are delivered with sincerity by a superb cast that’s rounded out by Fayez Bakhsh as Dina’s husband and various other men of either the callous or kind variety.
They are all superb singers, making ‘Downtown’ a delight and coming together at the end for a ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ that is so poignant and so beautifully sung it has everyone reaching for their hankies.