Bush Theatre – until 22 October 2022
Here’s something you don’t get to experience too often: a gritty piece of contemporary writing that gives theatrical voice to people largely unrepresented on stage, and does so with compassion and comedy; a new play that is at once delicately intimate yet epic in scope, and a cracking piece of storytelling that manages to indict it’s audience without ever feeling preachy or worthy. Waleed Akhtar’s The P Word is a plea for tolerance, a study of the power of friendship, a sort-of love story and ultimately a potent political act that grips like a thriller.
Akhtar’s script kicks off by juxtaposing two men directly addressing the audience: both are in their early thirties, gay, living in present day London and of Pakistani heritage. That’s where the superficial similarities end though: Bilal, or Billy as he prefers to be known, (Akhtar himself, and as fine an actor as he is a writer) is a confidently promiscuous city dweller, working in the fashion industry, getting lots of sex via the apps and leading a fairly hedonistic existence, only occasionally troubled by the realisation that he has no one to rely on but himself, and happy to pander to racial stereotypes if it means he’ll get his end away more frequently.
Then there’s Zafar (the equally brilliant Esh Alladi) seeking asylum in the UK having been run out of Pakistan by his own father who had already organised the murder of his boyfriend and was aiming to mete out the same fate to his own offspring. The script makes wry and explicit the contrast between a life where looking good to get laid is of the utmost importance, and one where your very nature could get you killed.
One of the most impressive things about Akhtar’s writing is the utter conviction with which he creates these two discrete voices: Billy’s cocksure arrogance and selfishness contrasts so vividly with Zafar’s haunted timidity and understandable paranoia that it’s hard to credit that they both came from the same pen. Every line, every nuance rings absolutely true and succeed in feeling simultaneously naturalistic yet rivetingly theatrical. Even more impressive perhaps is the way that, as the play progresses through it’s 85 minutes power-packed playing time and these men reveal more and more about themselves, our perception of each of them changes considerably, yet never once does it feel less than credible.
At first it looks as though we are in for an evening of intertwined monologues à la Brian Friel, but Akhtar throws a curveball by setting up a chance meeting between Bilal and Zafar on a late night Soho street, and sends them careening off into a friendship that initially looks a little unlikely but gradually makes sense as you realise that Bilal is less assured than one had first thought, that Zafar is a whole lot more fun, and that both are in fact desperately lonely.
Tellingly, despite the homophobia that forced him to flee his native land, it is Zafar who has pride in his Pakistani origins while to Bilal it seems little more than an inconvenience. Both performers inhabit their roles so completely – Akhtar is all laid back laconicism with an undertow of aggression, while Alladi has a wired, neurotic energy – that it barely feels like acting, but actually what beautiful work it is.
The interest in the will-they won’t they nature of the relationship pales into insignificance beside the bigger picture of what will happen to Zafar if he is forced to return to Pakistan and, without giving too much away, the whole tone and nature of the story alters drastically and devastatingly in the last fifteen minutes or so. Anthony Simpson-Pike’s immaculate, engrossing production is staged in the round and it feels truly remarkable to see so many people on the edge of their seats, holding their collective breath and, in many cases, fighting back tears.
In the closing moments, the play changes tack yet again as Akhtar abandons the characters and their story, and directly addresses the audience on the subject of asylum seekers and their fate when the UK rejects their plea to stay…it’s like a sheet of ice splitting across the stage, and it’s thought-provoking and maddening, elevating this thumping good story, magnificently produced, into a thing of importance and carefully pointed simmering rage.
Technically, the show is flawless, from Max Johns’s revolving broken disc set to Elliot Griggs’s scene controlling lighting and an exciting, omnipresent soundscape by Xana and composer Niraj Chag which mixes Pakistani tradition with jagged urbanity and just a hint of camp disco. The pace never flags, the humour truly lands, the text hammers home it’s points with potency but never lacks subtlety, and the performances are sublime.
Regardless of your sexual orientation or nationality, if you don’t respond to this extraordinary piece of theatre on some visceral level, you may want to check your humanity. Do not miss this play.