Waleed Akhtar’s two-hander about gay Pakistani life – The P Word – is a mighty success at the Bush Theatre
“What is so fucking wrong with me? I’m 31 and I’ve never been in a relationship”
Over 80 wonderful minutes, Waleed Akhtar’s The P Word takes us delicately but determinedly into the world of being gay and being Pakistani. In his early 30s, Bilal is a second-generation gym-honed Londoner who fully embraces the casual sex that metropolitan living has to offer after an early life being bullied; a little older, Zafar is seeking asylum in the UK after being hounded out by his homophobic family after the murder of his lover. Will they get the rom-com ending that our media constantly says they should?
Anthony Simpson-Pike’s production is close to perfection. On the circle of Max Johns’ set, the two are divided at first, telling their stories separately and then once they meet, there’s playfulness as they share the space but also poignancy as they each work through their damage. Bilal’s self-image corroded by the cis, white, muscled stereotypes that abound, Zafar haunted by his all-too-real trauma but regardless, a connection grows between the pair and it is utterly enchanting and entertaining to watch.
Akhtar’s script is wonderfully judged, blending its romantic inclinations with sharply observed socio-political issues in a manner which is always convincing. The racism they face as well as the homophobia, the challenges of belonging to an intolerant religion but also finding succour in the ritual of Islamic prayer, the richness of a Pakistani heritage and what that means in contemporary Britain – all are mixed in with the blossoming of a gorgeous relationship that demonstrates that attraction can come from anywhere.
Esh Alladi is tender and touching as Zafar, his emotional journey is a delight to behold as he relishes the extent to which he can now explore, and Akhtar as Bilal finds intelligent curiosity in the questioning he brings to the potential reassessment of his personal priorities. As an actor, he’s very good and as a writer, he’s hugely exciting. The celebration of Pakistani culture here is a too-rare pleasure and even as he celebrates the rush that comes from finding connection, he sobers us up with some bracing reality in the next breath – a sobering reminder that happy endings aren’t built into the system.