The P Word: Powerful new play casts a damning light on UK’s treatment of LGBTQ+ asylum seekers

Zafar and Bilal sitting on a sparse stage

Stirring new drama The P Word explores the bitter reality faced by LGBTQ+ asylum seekers, and the complexities of being a gay Pakistani man in Britain.

Waleed Akhtar’s stripped-back play is one of two halves. For the first act, two characters share their stories in monologue, each taking up one-half of the sparse, in-the-round staging.

Billy (played by Akhtar), known as Bilal to his family, is a gay Pakistani-Londoner. He was bullied at school for being a “fat brown poof”, is just-about tolerated by his mother, who dream of him having a “proper family”, and as a result has developed an internalised racism, spending his days on Grindr cruising white men, and ridiculing other Pakistanis.

Billy sat on the ground, hands clasped to his mouth

Waleed Akhtar wrote and stars in The P Word. (Craig Fuller)

Zafar, played by Esh Alladi, is an asylum seeker. He fled Pakistan after his father tried to kill him, and is surviving – barely – in temporary accommodation while he awaits an appeal into his case. The Home Office has found his story not credible, and though utterly defeated, he has to continue fighting – or else, face certain death.

Too often, asylum seekers are reduced to headlines, statistics. Here, we’re reminded that a person seeking asylum is just a person like you or I. We’re shown the crushing reality of being in the system: the cruelness of the UK Home Office, the appalling conditions it forces upon people, the lingering fears that follow those who’ve been persecuted for being who they are. On the flip-side, Billy’s story shows how being a queer person of colour in the UK can mean a life of isolation, filled with rejection, self-hatred, and a deep need to belong.

Billy, in the background, wearing sportswear, Zafar in the foreground in a shirt and jeans looking troubled

(Craig Fuller)

When the two men’s stories collide, we see a gorgeous exploration of how community makes us better people, helps us to deal with our trauma and find hope for the future. Akhtar and Alladi’s chemistry is magnetic – Billy is full of heart, even when he’s putting on a braggadocios facade, and Zafar speaks every word with his heart on his sleeve. Just when you think the script is veering into too neat of a happy ending, it pulls back to powerful, devastating effect. The message is spelled out clearly, just in case it wasn’t already so: the Home Office is condemning LGBTQ+ people to death by refusing them asylum, and it cannot be allowed to continue.

The P Word is on at the Bush Theatre, London, until 22 October.