Saturday, January 28

The P Word – Bush Theatre

Waleed Akhtar’s new play is sharp as it combines the warmth of friendship with the brutal reality of life as a refugee in the UK. The story follows two gay Pakistani men as we watch their lives unfold in London. Zafar is seeking asylum, fleeing from the danger he would face as a gay man in Pakistan. He attends counselling sessions and lives in a constant state of unrest as he waits to hear about his application. Bilal, who goes by the name Billy, has been brought up in London and as he enters the stage, we are given the lowdown on his Grindr status.

The pacing is gentle and gradual as the parallels between their lives are established, assisted by Max Johns’ minimalistic stage design; it is a rotating circle platform split in two. Each character sticks to his own side of the circle, which is further divided by Elliot Griggs’ lighting design, as they pace up and down within it. The two are caught up in their individual worlds until they suddenly collide at Pride where they form an unlikely friendship.

Photo: Craig Fuller

The script is funny and realistic, and the characters are well fleshed out, illuminating the different aspects of their lives and their cultures. It was a joy to witness Bilal and Zafar’s strange yet heart-warming friendship which is a testament to the writing and to Akhtar and Esha Alladi’s performance.

Anthony Simpson-Pike’s masterful direction builds their friendship in a believable way and sees Bilal and Zafar transform throughout the play. Bilal with his façade as a bit of a lad with ruthless, detached hook ups, becomes deeper as he reconnects with his Pakistani heritage and empathises with Zafar’s struggles. Zafar’s sprightly energy comes out as he can temporarily forget his woes when he is with Bilal.

Alladi gives an impeccable performance as Zafar. Fraught with grief and nerves, his pain is palpable which makes for such a contrast with his light, giddy nature and masterful comic delivery. Bilal is cool and confident with an unabashed sense of humour which Akhtar carries out perfectly. The characters were so convincing that you could think they were telling their own stories.

Just as Zafar shares his situation with Bilal, this play shares the story of all refugees fleeing danger and seeking asylum in the UK. From being shamed and humiliated at the border to being treated “worse than a criminal”, Zafar’s story is shocking and is a real reminder of the need for social change and the impact an individual can make.

Playing until 22nd October,

Reviewer: Riana Howarth

Reviewed: 14th September 2022

North West End UK Rating:  ★★★★