“I am not in your Britain. I’m in another Britain.” This quote from The P Word at the Bush Theatre rings particularly true, especially at a time when protests for the shooting of Chris Kaba are allegedly being misrepresented by the press. Step outside and you’ll see the face of Queen Elizabeth everywhere, but we seem to turn our own faces from the other, darker side of Britain. The side that sends asylum seekers to uncertain and dangerous futures at the hands of the Home Office. With institutional racism in Britain, it’s all connected. Directed by Anthony Simpson-Pike this new play by Waleed Akhtar explores the parallel lives of two gay Pakistani men, navigating the complexities of finding love, or just surviving, in the UK.
We follow Zafer (Esh Alladi) and Bilal (Waleed Akhtar), (or Billy as he prefers to be called) in their day to day lives. Bilal is heading for yet another Grindr hookup, but all he really wants is to find love and acceptance. Zafer has escaped torture and death at the hands of his father in Pakistan but his appeal for asylum in the UK has been rejected and now he faces an uncertain and isolated future. At first glance, it seems like Bilal’s struggles are trite and superficial. However, as Zafer eloquently puts it, their pain is all relative. After a chance encounter during Pride the pair form what, at first, seems like an unlikely friendship, but as time passes their connection becomes more complicated.
Theatre in the round is notoriously difficult to pull off, especially when it’s a two-hander but Akhtar and Alladi make it look effortless in The P Word. They skilfully capture the humour and pathos of their characters’ situation, drawing both laughter and tears from the audience with a deft mastery of their craft. Whilst their stellar acting highlights the experience of being gay and brown, their performance has something that is universally relatable. We all want to be loved and accepted. Most of all we just want to be safe, regardless of race, nationality, religion or sexuality.
A bare rotating stage, set on two levels in the centre of the theatre is the only set required for Akhtar and Alladi as they transport their audience to a textile factory in Pakistan, temporary asylum accommodation in Hounslow, the streets of Soho or the beach at Brighton. Lighting, voiceovers and music provide the remainder of the backdrop and it’s an impressively vivid one.
The P Word is part gay Bollywood romcom, part nail-biting thriller, and part tragic documentary of the inhumane treatment of gay asylum seekers, or asylum seekers in general, at the hands of the UK Government. In addition to this, it highlights the deep-seated racism, homophobia and bigotry that runs deep in British society. That being said, it is an uplifting, heartwarming and incredibly funny piece of theatre. However, as you leave the theatre you cannot ignore the bitter taste left in your mouth at the reminder that change is still needed.
The P Word is currently playing at The Bush Theatre until 22nd October