The P Word glows with a humbling humanity as it tackles the distressing experience of LGBTQ+ asylum seekers in the UK. If anything, an all too timely issue so dehumanising in its framing by the government – not least in terms of their sickening Rwanda policy – is turned on its head in this compelling 90-minute drama. The relationships under strain are centred on Max Johns’ circular set with intimacy and intensity, while the voices of Home Office and security personnel relegated to anonymous voiceovers which blend into a chilling monotony.
A journey towards humanity also unfolds for Bilal or ‘Billy’ (playwright Waleed Akhtar), a London lad with a slight leaning posture whose bigotry is borderline insufferable to begin with. He takes a cocky and confident approach to sex and dating apps, but carries resentment over sexual encounters with other men never leading to a romantic relationship. He uses the p-word liberally as a Pakistani man (though this only scratches the surface of the title of the play’s wider meaning), and fat-shames his apparently overbearing work colleague, Jason. He’s outspoken in his views, but casual about it, which makes the contrast between his eventual love interest Zafar (Esh Alladi) so intriguing.
In comparison, the asylum seeker who had to flee Pakistan after his ex-military father murdered his boyfriend is more frantic and unsettled in his demeanour – for good reason, many will conclude, as he appeals the rejection of his request for asylum in the UK. He dreams of a serenity one typically experiences between being asleep and awake, his descriptions and gesticulations so vivid and fluid in nature. They stick to their own halves of the set to begin with, though still touching upon similar topics of sleep and past loves despite the distance, before their lives collide during a club night in Soho, which ends with Zafar taking a drunken Billy back home.
Soon, they each have their own gains from being together: Zafar has a calming distraction from the intimidation of the Home Office, and Billy stands to learn a lot from Zafar about self-confidence and discrimination, having estranged himself from the rest of his family and their culture as a result of their homophobia. It is a tad irksome that the root of Billy’s aforementioned ignorance isn’t overtly stated, though there is a sense it stems from this breakaway from his heritage and a lack of self-confidence, his typical bravado and roughness being a defence strategy and a more ‘fake it ’til you make it’ persona. As Zafar challenges that and disarms that bit by bit, Billy’s confidence grows over time up until a thrilling act of courage in the show’s climax. We warm more to Zafar’s plight and are educated on the LGBTQ+ refugee experience.
When Billy shares his harmful views on “illegal” immigrants and claims there are those ‘pretending’ to be gay in order to bypass the asylum system, Zafar calls on him to question the “desperation” which led to them doing so, prompting audible murmurs of agreement from audience. Gentle in its romance and sharp in its scrutiny of misplaced hatred of those fleeing persecution, Anthony Simpson-Pike’s compelling direction of The P Word pulls us in with a charming love story, establishing a sense of security before snapping us back to the harsh reality and injustice faced by gay asylum seekers. One can only imagine that it almost feels like the same sensation of being on edge which refugees no doubt feel when in a battle against the Home Office. It’s all-consuming, and in the context of a play, it makes for phenomenal and powerful theatre.
And its message is as current as it is utterly damning, a reminder that not every LGBTQ+ asylum seeker has a “happy ending” akin to Pakistani dramas which Zafar loves so dearly. It grounds us and injects humanity where there is hostility, the voiceover of former Home Secretary Priti Patel announcing the Pakistan deportation agreement indicating just how much work there is left to do, and how easy it is for hate to cloud love in all its beauty and complexity.
The P Word is now playing at the Bush Theatre until 29 October.
Production Images: Craig Fuller.
Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘The P Word’ for free in exchange for a review of the performance as a member of the press. I did not receive payment for the above article and all opinions stated are honest and my own.