Writer: Waleed Akhtar
Director: Anthony Simpson-Pike
They say that we should not judge a book by its cover, but nor, perhaps, should we judge a play by its title. Waleed Akhtar’s new drama, The P Word, bears a title with such negative connotations that it is hard to believe that it could possibly be the cover for a tender and intimate bromance which frequently brings tears to the eyes.
The play, an 80-minute two hander, tells the stories of two gay men, both of Pakistani descent. Bilal, who prefers to be known as Billy, is 31-years-old, second generation British and out to his parents, but largely estranged from them. He has a career, but suspects that racism could be holding him back. Played with a likeable swagger by the writer himself, Billy is comfortable with his sexuality, cruising the gay scene and using dating apps for casual hook-ups, but he senses a need for more meaningful connections, having little idea of how to change his lifestyle.
Zafar is slightly older and has been seeking asylum in the United Kingdom on the grounds of homophobic persecution in Pakistan. He has bean beaten and his male lover has been killed at the behest of his own father. He lives in Hounslow, which the play suggests is a no man’s land between Heathrow Airport and the real world. Esh Allandi’s Zafar is withdrawn and confused, but releases of his true, bubbling personality give this production some of its most joyful moments.
When Zafar goes to a Gay Pride event in order to take photos to help prove to the Home Office that he is really gay, he is a fish out of water, but he meets a very drunk Billy and an unlikely friendship begins to form. They share a love for the work of fashion designer Alexander McQueen and for old Pakistani movies, but, in other respects, the things that they have in common – their national identity, their sexual orientation – are the things that threaten to keep them apart. Zafar has moved from a land where he was persecuted to another where homophobia, Islamophobia and racism still prevail, albeit in much diluted forms.
The progress of the two men confronting the challenges thrown up by modern Britain shapes a gripping narrative. They are set adrift, wholly or partly, from family, faith and cultural heritage, but they draw strength from each other. Social and political issues abound throughout the play, but Akhtar’s great skill as a writer lies in keeping them secondary to the unfolding human drama. The dialogue, as spoken in two marvellous performances, feels entirely natural, filled with wry observations and subtle humour.
Director Anthony Simpson-Pike’s in-the-round staging has energy, warmth and, in a thrilling climax, urgency. Max Johns’ design, a revolving circular stage, draws the audience into the drama.
Do the two men drop the letter “b” from their bromance and do they triumph over adversity? No spoilers, but there can be little doubt that the play itself is an outright triumph.
Runs until 22 October 2022