REVIEW: The Ministry of Lesbian Affairs (Damsel Productions and Soho Theatre)

When we received the press release for Iman Qureshi’s latest play, The Ministry of Lesbian Affairs, our interest was immediately piqued just by the name. And when we read on and discovered that it was a heartwarming comedy about a lesbian choir, it was clear that this was going to be just up our street. So last Thursday night, Mummy headed along to the press performance while Mrs Mummy, in true lesbian fashion, stayed at home with the children and cats.

The play opens with a prologue telling of a choir of “women who love women” who meet every week in a ramshackle venue just off Dean Street. We soon meet this choir ourselves as they rehearse a highly entertaining parody of ‘My Favourite Things’ featuring such lesbian stereotypes as vegan food, sensible footwear and rescue kittens. Just outside the rehearsal space, Ana (Claudia Jolly) is trying to coax reluctant girlfriend, Lori (Kibong Tanji) inside. But the pair soon beat a hasty retreat after accidentally scattering contraband snacks all over choirmaster Connie’s (Shuna Snow) “nut-free zone”. It’s not long before the “nut girls” find their way back to the choir though, this time accompanied by Qatari housewife, Dina (Lara Sawalha) who is pretty sure she’s a lesbian and just a little bit enamored by broadband engineer, Lori. With the newbies bolstering the ranks of the only lesbian choir in the country, and London Pride on the lookout for lesbian representation, it looks like they’re a shoo-in for the main stage. All they need to do is impress the organisers, decide on a name and convince Connie to ditch her classical repertoire in favour of something modern. And get themselves some hats, obviously.

Back Row left to right: R Shuna Snow, Mariah Louca, Claudia Jolly, Kibong Tanji
Middle Row left to right: Fanta Barrie and Lara Sawalha. Front: Kiruna Stamell Credit and copyright: Helen Murray

It’s a very funny show filled with plenty of well-received references to lesbian culture and stereotypes (which, as self-proclaimed OWL (“Older Wiser Lesbian”) Connie points out, exist for a reason), and some fantastic choral renditions of music ranging from Gershwin to “Pussy is God” by King Princess. Although there are some darker moments along the way (with Fayez Bakhsh playing both Dina’s emotionally abusive husband and a threatening, homophobic man in a pub), it feels as if we’re en route for an uplifting ending in which the group perform at Pride and we all leave with a warm fuzzy feeling and a desire to join our nearest community choir. And while that last bit may still be true, things take quite the turn after the interval, when the Pride performance is cut short after one member, seemingly unknowingly, appears on stage in a transphobic t-shirt.

Having been permanently banned from Pride, this diverse group of women start to discover that they are divided by more than just the question of whether they sing alto or soprano. And although they may all have joined the choir to feel part of a community, fractures start to form when it becomes clear that they don’t all feel the same way about what it means to belong to that community. Although every character’s personal experiences are explored (including Ana’s bisexuality, Lori’s struggle to fit in anywhere as a closeted, black churchgoer and Dina’s need to hide herself from her husband for fear of losing her visa and her children), it is the relationship between disabled lesbian, Fi (Kiruna Stamell) and transwoman, Brig (Mariah Louca) which provides the most powerful part of the play. Both marginalised in so many ways, they are initially drawn to each other until Fi fires off an alcohol-fuelled rant in the aftermath of the Pride fiasco, revealing some strong feelings on lesbian visibility and safe spaces for women.

What makes this so effective is the space that the play provides for both Fi and Brig’s perspectives. And just as it would have been too easy to end with the choir performing at Pride, Qureshi strays away from a harmonious resolution to the rift within the group. With the choir disbanded, and wounds still too deep to heal so soon, there are glimmers of hope as they come together to help Connie transport her precious piano home and unite, for one last time, in song.

Back row standing left to right: R Lara Sawalha, Fanta Barrie, Mariah Louca
Front sitting left to right: Claudia Jolly, Kibong Tanji, Kiruna Stamel. Credit and copyright: Helen Murray

The Ministry of Lesbian Affairs is a brilliantly entertaining musical comedy which proudly celebrates lesbian culture and will undoubtedly resonate with all women who love women. It’s funny, moving and ultimately uplifting without being twee or trite. And – because we’re with Connie on stereotypes – it’s definitely a good reason for lesbians to cast off their fuzzy wuzzy slippers, leave the cats at home and head out of the house for a night in Soho. You can even get vegan food right across the road!

The Ministry of Lesbian Affairs plays at Soho Theatre from 6 May to 11 June 2022. We received a complimentary ticket to the press performance on 12 May.