The P Word is a love story with shades of When Harry Met Sally: it has the same awkward will-they won’t-they friendship, cuteness and big dose of schmaltz.
But Waleed Akhtar’s duologue is ingeniously so much more: a consciousness-raising play about homophobic persecution, racism within the gay community and Britain’s hostile asylum system. These issues do not feel fully enough explored in the play’s short duration (80 minutes) but neither are they welded on or shouted out – at least until the very final moment.
Bilal, played by Akhtar, is a British Pakistani who has been bullied at school for being brown, big and gay. He has since transformed himself into a Grindr-addicted gym body, changing his name to Billy and defensively chasing hookups with only white men.
Zafar, played with tenderness by Esh Alladi, is a Pakistani claiming asylum in the UK; his gay lover was murdered and he is marked for the same fate if he returns to his village near Lahore.
Directed by Anthony Simpson-Pike, they are oblivious of each other for the first part of the play, speaking from their own sides of Max Johns’ circular dais stage, but there is an emotional gear-shift when they meet. Akhtar’s script gains energy, momentum and intensity from hereon in. British Pakistani identity is touched on as well as faith and homophobia, with a lovely exchange about the serenity that Islamic prayer brings for both men.
The play could afford to go further into character. It hurtles on, led by unlikely friendship, while Bilal’s emotional transformation comes too quickly. But the story has an irresistible quality that makes us believe in it and we are swept along.
We get the Bollywood ending that the play knowingly drives towards but which it undercuts in the same breath to make a point about asylum. This over-emphatic moment is not needed – we get the message through the story itself. But if this is a slightly scrappy drama, it bewitches with hope, romance and heart.
At Bush theatre, London, until 22 October.