THE P WORD at the Bush Theatre
“To see the moments of queer joy that are portrayed here is truly a pleasure”
The P Word, written by Waleed Akhtar, finds itself caught in the space between a two hander and a series of monologues. The play remains grounded, however, by its layered character and their wit.
Bilal, played by Akhtar, details to the audience his experiences as a British Pakistani man in the gay dating scene. He lets his prejudices, fatphobia and islamophobia in particular, be known early on, as well as sources of their internalization. Zafar, played by Esh Alladi, arrives onstage mid-trauma: engaged in an unsuccessful bid to seek asylum in the UK, his partner murdered, his life endangered by a homophobic father were he to be deported to Pakistan. The play only kicks into gear, however, when the two characters bump into one another in the middle of Soho during Pride.
The set, designed by Max Johns, is minimal and elegant. A raised, circular, rotating platform, carries the characters temporally through the play. Each half of the platform tilts in the opposite direction, and LED light illuminates the outline of each semicircle, enclosing Bilal and Zafar in their disparate experiences for the first half of the play. Small compartments built into the set facilitate quick changes, allowing both actors to remain onstage for the duration of the play. These transitions, however, can feel rushed, more marked than they are performed.
Before Bilal and Zafar meet, they communicate exclusively in parallel monologue. Most of the unseen characters in Zafar monologues—a stranger, his mother, a healthcare worker—make their presence known through voiceover. Akhtar steps outside of Bilal’s character with more regularity, voicing his hookups and co-workers, lending his monologues the quality of a one-person show. This particular directorial choice by Anthony Simpson-Pike could be intended to further distinguish Bilal and Zafar’s narratives, but it results in a garbled theatrical language. The formal discrepancy, along with the duration of the parallel monologue sections, lends a dragging and uneven quality to the first half of the play, despite strong performances from Akhtar and Alladi.
Even after Bilal and Zafar have had their chance encounter and begin to share scenes, these parallel monologues persist. The two characters frequently break from engaging moments of dialogue to speak directly to the audience, halting the pace of the second half. The P Word finds its emotional core within the extended and mostly uninterrupted scenes between Bilal and Zafar. Bilal confronts his internalized prejudices, while Zafar begins to heal from the murder of his partner, Haroon. These scenes are both tender and emotionally fraught, blissfully banal and high stakes. To see the moments of queer joy that are portrayed here is truly a pleasure.
In The P Word’s final moments, following a somewhat sensationalized and romanticized conclusion, the world of the play briefly cracks. Though the break seems to be inspired by works such as Jackie Sibblies Dury’s ‘Fairview’, it reads more like an admission than it does a true confrontation, inadvertently letting the audience and performance off the hook.
Reviewed on 14th September 2022
by JC Kerr
Photography by Craig Fuller
Previously reviewed at this venue: