“If five per cent of people are gay then that means there are a hundred million gay Muslims”
“The P Word” draws a striking portrait of 2020s male identity and loneliness, both in Pakistan and in the UK. The show is a unique experience, because it touches you to the core, and creates that uncomfortable feeling you get when you realise that you’re in your social bubble and don’t even grasp the tragedy that may be happening just next door. It sprinkles some Bollywood charm too, for a good balance, and all in all, it’s just such a well-rounded, catharsis-like experience.
Not many productions stay in my mind for a long time. “The P Word” is one of the few that definitely will. It could be because of the magic of the last couple of minutes of the play, delivered with a simple yet effective audience participation trick. But let’s start with the beginning.
“The P Word” tells the story of two gay men of Pakistani heritage. Bilal (or Billy, as he prefers) lives in London, works in the fashion industry, and spends his days seemingly just looking for a hookup on Grindr and working out in the gym. Seemingly – because as the show progresses, he shares the story of his loneliness in a big city, which started at an early age, and lasted until the current moment. He’s longing for someone who cares and could stay in his life for longer – but would never say it loud, of course.
Zafar seems like Bilal’s total opposite. He lived his whole life in Pakistan, where he had to hide his real feelings for his boyfriend Haroon. Being openly gay, was, of course, not an option. Once the family discovered his secret, a tragedy happened and Zafar had to immediately flee Pakistan to the UK, as an asylum seeker. He found himself lonely in a big city just like Bilal – but instead of living a life of online dating, he’s thrown into temporary accommodation in Hounslow, with no chance to work, on a budget of pitiful £40 a week. A twist of fate brings 2 men together, and an unusual friendship begins, just as Zafar’s status as a refugee starts being questioned…
The 85 minutes spent in Bush Theatre passes in a blink of an eye. The script is written in a way, which seems both raw and real, but also fairytale-like at times and creates almost a hypnotising experience. The awkwardness of Zafar’s first-ever Pride experience is balanced out with a calm, deep conversation with Bilal in his flat the day after. An explanation of the devastating fate of gay men in Pakistan and a painful story of Haroon’s murder is followed by a start of a brittle, sensitive feeling between the two characters. As time passes, both Bilal and Zafar let their guard down more and more and allow themselves to be vulnerable – and the journey through these feelings is acted out in such a magnetic way.
The production leads us to think that we know what will happen at the end, as we cheer for Zafar and Bilal to finally realise their feelings towards each other and lean in for a kiss. But Akhtar, in his writing, doesn’t let the ending happen like it’s a Bollywood movie. There’s a second side to the coin, and in this case, it’s the sharp set of stats about LGBTQ refugees deported from the UK just last year. The terrifying number, which is presented to the audience after what just seemed like a happy ending…
The show is balanced not just by opposite characters and themes, but by a stunning, creative stage set design. The stage is ingeniously split in half, which especially in the first half of the staging, allows for visual contrast between Bilal and Zafar’s lives. Both actors are given limited space to move around, as they share their stories, which makes them resemble two tigers walking in a circle in their cages. The stage of different heights hides a couple of surprises (like surprise spaces to store props in) and animates the slightly slower moments with the stage rotation.
Waleed Akhtar, who wrote the play and also stars as Bilal, brings the “bad boy charm” to every scene. He slowly reveals emotional layers of Bilal’s mind and turns this seemingly shallow character, into the one I felt true pity for, and frankly, just wanted to hug him.
Esh Alladi brings such warmth into the character of Zafar. He is the one in a seemingly “more tragic” situation, yet what I will remember from the play is Zafar’s shy smile, being a symbol of will for survival. Both actors have fantastic chemistry between them, from the very first moment they interact.
Being gay in Pakistan seems like a crazy difficult feat. Living in a country where officially being out of the closet is not (officially) punished by death, but by prison or the potential of complete loss of family. “The P Word” opens the window to a social problem that exists just next to us, but so quietly that we may not even realise it’s there. It’s only when you sit in a quiet auditorium of Bush Theatre and get faced with the facts of this terrifying issue that tears start rolling down your face, and you’re left with no words to say.
by Waleed Akhtar
A Bush Theatre Production
27 Sept to 22 Oct 2022
Pingback: My most memorable shows of 2022 - West End Evenings on September 26, 2022