<strong><em>The P Word (Review)</em></strong>

The P Word (Review)


For the second time in the space of a few days I found myself sitting in a fringe theatre set up in an in the round configuration with an almost bare stage watching a powerful two handed play about identity, race and sexuality. Following The Orange Tree’s Yellowman, I must admit to a sense of trepidation at so soon attending another piece that seemed to be, at a surface level anyway, too closely aligned to the first. I need not have concerned myself as The P Word at the Bush Theatre was every bit as powerful as its predecessor had proved to be and was in many ways even more remarkable being the playwright’s second big success this year following Kabul Goes Pop which drew many plaudits for its writing.


Clearly Waleed Akhtar is a name to watch as this new piece economically and poignantly sketches the parallel lives of a pair of gay men with a Pakistani heritage. The play starts with the two living separate lives. Zafar escapes homophobic persecution and the threat of death (at the hands of his own father) by fleeing to London where he seeks asylum. He is shy and reticent and suffers daily mental agonies over the death of his partner. Bilal (though he much prefers Billy) is a second generation immigrant hooked on casual sex and a gym bunny lifestyle flitting round London. This first third of the play is delivered as two interlocking monologues which compare and contrast the men’s experiences.


Then they meet at Pride and fall into a gradually developing relationship which is long on tenderness and even humour. This second section could so easily have been a collection of scenes based on the tropes of the chalk and cheese rom com, but Akhtar’s writing neatly subverts many of the conventions and makes something fresh out of what might so easily have been a series of clichés. The last third switches track yet again to become a tense thriller and brings the now united pair together in an act of defiance against the British authorities which had the audience verbally approving of the denouement which turned out to be a tense and well written finale. There’s even a very poignant coda where the two actors step out of character to make telling points about the reality on which the play is based. As you leave the auditorium you hear the real words of Pritti Patel on the subject of asylum seekers pointedly echoing around the space: events may have moved her on, though it’s doubtful that the attitudes she expressed have done so.

Akhtar himself plays Bilal/Billy in an assured and confident style while still suggesting hidden depths to his character. These he cleverly allows to emerge as the piece develops providing a performance of subtlety and stature; he has written himself a cracking character study, and why not? There’s another for Esh Alladi as Zafar whose initial diffidence and insecurity suggests a world of physical and mental anguish but which he is well on the way to sublimating as he starts to take control of his own destiny. It’s a noteworthy and consummate pair of performances enhanced by a creative and technical team well marshalled by director Anthony Simpson-Pike. Particularly clever is Max John’s circular playing area which is split yet still connected in a yin and yan configuration which emphasises the distance between the protagonists but also their connectedness. The fact that it revolves also solves some of the knottier dilemmas posed by arena staging and gives a sense of urgency and restlessness to the whole piece.


While neither Yellowman or The P Word could be said to tend towards light heartedness, both pieces present a candid picture of people who might be regarded as living on the fringes of society and dealing with prejudice and persecution as part of their daily routine. It’s one of the functions of theatre to make us look at the world through fresh eyes and if we come out afterwards with even a slight shift in our perspectives then it can be said to be fulfilling its brief.

Production photos by Craig Fuller

The P Word is at Bush Theatre – click here

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