Review by Daz Gale
Bush Theatre is home to a world premiere as Waleed Akhtar’s The P Word settles in for a limited season, bringing with it hard-hitting and thought-provoking issues. This is a show I didn’t think I’d have a chance to catch, but after repeatedly being told this was a play I HAD to see, I made the time. But did it live up to the word of mouth?
The P Word tells the story of two Pakistani gay men, Zafar and Bilal (or Billy as he prefers to be known). Two very different characters with Zafar having fled Pakistan due to homophobic persecution, and London based Bilal ground down from years of meaningless hook-ups. On the surface, they are two completely different people, but a chance meeting changes both of their lives as their unlikely friendship blossoms.
Writer Waleed Akhtar also stars as one of the two characters, playing Bilal/Billy. Starting the play as a cocky guy who seems to be quite content with the way he is, this ebbs away as the events of the play come to light and the real Bilal/Billy comes to light. Waleed effortlessly channels the complications of this character in a well rounded and nuanced performance.
The role of Zafar is played by Esh Alladi in a beautifully intimate portrayal of the character. Performed with a sense of vulnerability, Esh is fantastic as he tries to deal with his new surroundings all the while fearing for the future and battling the trauma from his past. Sometimes understated, the moments where the character comes out of his shell are among the best of the play, with the chemistry between the two actors undeniable.
One element that makes The P Word such a resounding success is its narrative structure. The first part of the play sees the two characters take turns taking us through the events of their life, making no attempt to rush through it to get to the meeting between the pair. The way it takes its time to get there allows the audience to get to know these characters thoroughly, which makes the changing dynamic when the pair meet all the more impactful. The play is drastically different when the pair get together, having previously had nobody to interact with. This leads to a play that starts high and gets better as it progresses, never dipping in quality.
The themes in The P Word are quite heavy. Attitudes to homophobia and racism are prominent, including the rarer seen side of internalised hatred. Whereas Bilal is more confident with his sexuality and has tried to distance himself from his heritage, Zafar is the polar opposite, prouder of where he has come from but not as confident with his sexuality. This “odd couple” nature allows the two to open something up in each other in a tale where self-acceptance is just part of the story.
Waleed Akhtar’s writing is exceptional. Unflinching and unfiltered, its naturalistic approach to dialogue creates a world that is easy to buy into and one that makes the more difficult moments of the play all the more emotional. Telling the story of what it is like to live in a very different Britain to others and how some of us might take for granted what that means – this is highlighted with Zafar living in London as an asylum seeker all the while fearing being sent back to Pakistan.
What leaves you with a real gut punch feeling is the knowledge that this isn’t a fictional tale but one that is very much happening. With references to being sent on a plane to Rwanda and even the voice of the revolting Priti Patel playing at one point, it is a sobering reality that this supposedly escapist play is in actual fact brutally real. A moment where the actors break the fourth wall makes this even more thought provoking and a bold ending leaves the events of the play staying with you long after you’ve left the theatre.
The writing comes to life thanks to the expert direction of Anthony Simpson-Pike, with set design from Max Johns seeing a revolving stage spit in two separate halves, allowing us to distinguish the two actors separate stories until they meet in the middle. A clever use of sound from XANA and lighting from Elliot Griggs creates a well-rounded and consistently strong production.
If word of mouth is paramount to the success of smaller shows you might not have heard of otherwise, The P Word is a prime example of this. A show that I was interested in but one I had accepted I was going to have to miss. I am grateful for the people that hounded me to see this show, as it really was a work of art. Exceptionally written and meticulously acted, The P Word is an absolute triumph. Hard hitting and thought provoking, this is a play that has the potential to make you laugh and cry within moments of each other. While various P words could be associated with the themes of the play, I could think of only one P word to describe this fantastic show – Powerful.
The P Word plays at Bush Theatre until October 22nd. Tickets from https://www.bushtheatre.co.uk/event/the-p-word-2022/
Photos by Craig Fuller