Waleed Akhtar’s gorgeous, devastating new play is split between two Britains. One’s the twenty-first century, ‘love is love’ home of corporate Pride sponsorship and endless app-enabled sexual possibilities. And the other one’s tougher, older – medieval, almost – a place where gay asylum seekers are intrusively questioned about their sexual behaviour, and banished to their deaths. The resulting drama might sound grim, and sometimes it is, but ‘The P Word’ is also heart-meltingly lovely, full of faith in the transformative power of love and friendship.
Akhtar himself plays Bilal, a Grindr-addicted gay man who deals with the lingering stigma of growing up a ‘fat Pakistani poof’ by throwing himself into self-punishing gym sessions. His story is spliced with that of gay Pakistani asylum seeker Zafar (Esh Alladi), who’s living an impoverished existence in Hounslow, advised by his lawyer to back up his case by taking photos of himself participating in a LGBTQ+ scene he couldn't feel more adrift from.
Director Anthony Simpson-Pike creates subtle physical echoes between the two – Bilal does push-ups as Zafar offers desperate prayers – that emphasise their different shades of loneliness, both cut off from their families by their sexual identity. Max John’s ambitious set design makes them begin on separate halves of a circular stage that starts to revolve as their stories finally collide.
‘The P Word’ is the kind of play where you know from the get-go what's going to happen but that really, really doesn't matter. I found myself leaning forward in my seat, willing these two guys to get together – longing for Bilal to throw off his social snobbery, and for Zafar to overcome his all-too-justified fears. The brittle Akhtar and the lovably goofy, charismatic Alladi have a compelling chemistry together, but just as importantly, their characters both meaningfully evolve through this play's short 85-minute span. They bond over old films, and a sprinkling of Bollywood magic soon enters their own lives, too, making their colours brighter and richer.
If ‘The P Word’ does sometimes veer into movieland sentimentality, that’s something Akhtar’s text very much acknowledges and complicates. Gay Pakistani life is no fairytale. But he also celebrates the richness and possibilities of modern Pakistani culture, quashing the stereotype that having a fully realised LGBTQ+ existence means leaving your old identity behind.
Akhtar is so adept at mingling stinging political critique and carefully-crafted storytelling that he makes it look easy, but it's really not. Plays like this are rare, and this story deserves to have a wide audience fall in love alongside its awkwardly blossoming protagonists.