Bush Theatre – until 22 October 2022
Britain is a divided nation, but one of the divisions that we don’t hear that much about is that between Pakistani gay men. Written by Waleed Akhtar (who also stars in this impressively heartfelt two-hander), The P Word is about the differences in life experiences between one asylum seeker and one Londoner, and comes to the Bush Theatre in a production which has been supported by Micro Rainbow, the first safe house in the UK for LGBTQ asylum seekers and refugees. So what’s it all about?
Set in contemporary London, the 85-minute play begins with two parallel life stories: one is that of 31-year-old Pakistani Londoner Bilal (Akhtar), who prefers to be known as Billy, and enjoys a high body count of causal sex through Grindr. However, he is not exactly happy: at one point he says: “What is so fucking wrong with me? I’m 31 and I’ve never been in a relationship.” The other is 32-year-old Zafar, an isolated asylum-seeker from Lahore who has fled persecution after his homophobic family ordered the murder of his lover Haroon. After a while, both men meet, at first inauspiciously, on Pride day.
Gradually, and tentatively, Bilal and Zafar get to know each other. Although at first it seems as if they are very different, with Bilal the handsome metropolitan hedonist and Zafar the shy outsider, they soon find a connection. Zafar reminds Bilal of his Pakistani heritage through the four Fs of food, films, fashion and family. They also share their feelings of loneliness and rejection, their sense that they need another person to help them, their often unacknowledged vulnerability. Although Bilal works in fashion, and knows scores of people, he needs a stronger emotional life, while Zafar is barely existing on £40.85 in a Hounslow flat which forbids visitors. He is awaiting the result of his appeal against the Home Office decision to send him back to Pakistan.
Although they are a classic odd couple, Akhtar shows how they find it difficult to shed their own individual psychological baggage (in Bilal’s case an obsession with physical beauty; in Zafar’s the traumatic memory of Haroon’s violent death) and to move on. Zafar’s shame about his poverty and then his pride in Islam sit uncomfortably with Bilal’s cynicism and rejection of his heritage. But the two men do bond during their evenings together by watching Pakistani films and exploring London together. But despite the good-natured humour of Zafar mocking Bilal’s attempts to ignore his ancestry, the shadow of government immigration policy darkens the skies.
Akhtar’s writing is beautiful in its playfulness and precision, full of specific details of feelings, actions and opinions. Confident Bilal tries to overcome his experience of bullying at school by pretending he’s a regular English guy, but during his hook-ups his circumcised cock gives him away; at Lahore airport a nervous Zafar wonders if he should puff out his cheeks so he looks more like the photo on his brother’s passport, which he is using because it has a visa to the UK. He also makes a very sharp point about Bilal using the P word; and points out that “if five per cent of people are gay then that means there are a hundred million gay Muslims”. Yay!
By the end of the play the audience clearly wants this rom-com to have a Bollywood-style romantic ending, with a big onscreen (or onstage) kiss and Akhtar delivers this fantasy brilliantly. It’s so beautifully done you won’t be afraid to cry. Then, in a superbly theatrical moment, he subverts his own happy ending with a good dose of reality, arguing that we should never forget the horrific details of homophobic persecutions and the massive shortcomings of the British asylum system. The play’s last scene is a perfect balance of joy and gloom, all marvelously managed in a great production.
Anthony Simpson-Pike directs with a sure hand and Max Johns’s circular set, neatly divided in two to represent parallel lives with a tilt for psychological disequilibrium, is a perfect playing area. Akhtar gives Bilal a generous and confident stage presence, and some quiet alteration in his body language as he begins to reassess his lifestyle, while Esh Alladi’s Zafar mixes painfully humble bewilderment with the renewed energy of his changing existence. Energized through sound by XANA and lighting by Elliot Griggs, The P Word is excellent in its writing, staging and acting. It is genuinely urgent and moving in its depiction of the positive side of Pakistani heritage and in its advocacy of change through human connection. Among the other P words, my favourite is P for pleasure.
This review first appeared on The Arts Desk
The P Word is at the Bush Theatre until 22 October.
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