Waleed Akhtar has written a gorgeous play that explores the lives of two disparate gay men of Pakistani heritage both living in Britain under very different circumstances. Zafar is seeking asylum from his hostile homeland, while Bilal is the assimilated second-generation beneficiary of his hardworking immigrant parents. What follows is a funny, honest, heartbreaking, and important political drama about finding love and loyalty in seemingly unexpected places.
Director Anthony Simpson-Pike has masterfully choreographed the two-man production to flow beautifully. The first half of the play features each character in a world of their own, speaking directly to the audience and to the imaginary characters that inhabit their settings and situations. With subtle support from lighting design and a revolving set piece in the centre, this play in the round is constantly evolving, forever in motion, adding to the well-laid momentum found by Simpson-Pike and his talented company of actors.
Playwright Waleed Akhtar plays Bilal with a confident swagger that hides the real pain and loneliness swelling deep inside. His talents as both playwright and actor couldn’t be on better display than they are here. Esh Alladi as Zafar is as animated as one could ask for and at times, overextends himself but always returns to a grounded presence and charm. Around halfway, through the 80-minute show, the characters meet. What follows is a listening and give and take which is rare to witness and a gift to experience.
This is a play about two gay men but it is a play for all of society. Its themes of fear, repression, escape, privilege, ignorance, hatred, racism, allyship, culture, and love will (and did) resonate deeply with an audience. Without being preachy or feeling like a chore, this play leaves a mark on its audience and maintains its comedic appeal throughout. There is a lot of great theatre in London, but very rarely does one leave a play feeling changed. Its ending, which will not be spoiled here, is both cracking and effective. I have not seen an audience jump to its feet for a standing ovation so quickly in a very long time.
The P Word runs at the Bush Theatre until 22 October.
Review: Matthew Pierce Photo: Craig Fuller