“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.
FEELING AFRAID AS IF SOMETHING TERRIBLE IS GOING TO HAPPEN at Edinburgh Festival Fringe
“exciting, original and very funny”
Samuel Barnett plays a stand-up comedian in his Edinburgh debut performance of Marcelo Dos Santos’s new play. He’s thirty-six, which he reassures us is fine in a tone of voice which suggests it’s maybe not. He’s incredibly neurotic, hopelessly single, spending his days scrolling through headless torsos on Grindr and working on his stand-up routines. Every so often we’re treated to a new gag, which range from jokes about Wetherspoons to feeling like you’re going to die if there’s blood in your cum to having the urge to crush a kitten to death with your bare hands. I think Barnett proves that any joke can be funny if the delivery is done right. At one point he even deconstructs the delivery of a perfect joke: the rule of three, alliteration, words which suddenly become funny when juxtaposed with something unexpected. I’m a bit of a nerd for writing theory so loved this bit. As the play plays with form itself, in a stand-up routine which becomes theatre (or vice-versa), it’s very interested in the masking of one form with the other, just as the character masks his underlying anxieties with his jokes.
But when he meets a new man known only as the ‘American’, his jokes just aren’t going to cut it. The American has an uncommon medical conditions where laughing could literally kill him. So he can’t laugh at any of his jokes, even though he reassures him he really does find them funny. Barnett’s character – who doesn’t seem to be given a name – ends up jeopardising the relationship, the first proper relationship of his thirty-six years, and the story ends on a brilliant punchline, which we realise it’s been working towards from quite early on. It’s great.
Barnett’s timing, of both the comedy and the desperation, is impeccable. He’s on full speed from the moment the lights go up and it feels like he hardly stops from breath. And then the moments he does, the moments when he drops the mic and lets us really hear him, we cling on to, hoping we might find some truths, hoping we might be trusted enough to let him be vulnerable for a moment. Matthew Xia’s direction astutely sets the pace of Santos’s text, and works brilliantly to ensure Barnett connects with each and every person in the audience as he whizzes around the stage. It very much feels like we’re at a comedy gig in the way Barnett forms his rapport with us. He rolls his eyes and we feel like rolling ours with him. Each expression and tiny gesture is carefully timed and delivered. We’re totally there with him and his frustrations at the American for not getting slapstick, and other British cultural references. The whole performance is totally captivating.
At the heart of the story, of the jokes, is a comedian, a man in his mid-thirties, living in London and feeling incredibly lonely. And when someone sees this for what it is, he struggles to decide whether or not he can let himself open up. We don’t really find out what happens in the end, but the final gag we’re left with suggests there probably is quite a bit of hope for this character. It’s an exciting, original and very funny new play, with a magnificent, five-star performance from Barnett at the helm.
Reviewed 12th August 2022
by Joseph Winer
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