Meet the writer: Waleed Akhtar

If you’ve seen the Bush Theatre’s 50th season trailer on YouTube, you’ll be familiar with Waleed Akhtar. He plays the role of Billy, a young lad bragging about his latest online hook-up as he takes us on a journey along the Southbank and around the Barbican.

Following the run-away success of his first play Kabul Goes Pop! which opened to brilliant reviews earlier this year at Brixton House, Waleed’s second play The P Word, in which he also performs alongside Esh Alladi, previews at the Bush from 9 September. The show is directed by Anthony Simpson-Pike, director of last year’s award-winning production of Benedict Lombe’s Lava at the Bush.

“I wanted to see a play from a queer Muslim perspective that didn’t pander to the white gaze. So, I had to write it.”

One of the many exciting writers bursting onto the scene from the Bush Theatre’s Emerging Writers’ Group, Waleed began his career as an actor at a time when straying out of your lane and dabbling in writing and making theatre was unusual. ‘The industry wasn’t dealing well with multihyphenates. Thank God for Michaela Cole and Phoebe Waller Bridge’, says Waleed, ‘I just got tired of being written about, the scarcity of interesting parts and though ‘fuck that’ and started creating.’

After appearing in theatre productions up and down the country as well as, he says, ‘the holy trinity of television – Casualty, Holby City and Doctors’, Waleed took to writing inspired by ‘injustice and trying to see beyond mainstream narratives. I wanted to tell truth to power but also just wanted to make people laugh and think differently’.

His inspiration comes from ‘the sum of everything that I’ve ever read or seen. The good, the bad and the ugly, it’s all in there somewhere.’

He talks about the huge influence debbie tucker green’s play Dirty Butterfly had on him; ‘I’m not someone who grew up going to the theatre, and I remember just reading this play and being absolutely blown away. The way it was written, the poetry, it lit something in me. It made me feel theatre could be something for me and I’ve been a fan boy ever since.’ But he also has a taste for the low-brow; ‘There are no guilty pleasures, just pleasures. I love really shit reality TV and I mean really shit. There was a whole week where I was obsessed with extreme couponing, those Americans really know how to coupon. Oh, and I lose way too many hours to TikTok… it’s destroyed my attenti…’ 

The P Word charts the parallel lives of two gay Pakistani men.  Zafar, fleeing homophobic persecution in Pakistan and Londoner Billy, dealing with the complexities of being a brown gay man, particularly on the gay scene.  It’s a story of who wins in the luck of life’s draw and Deirdre O’Halloran, the Bush Theatre’s Literary Manager was excited by the play’s activism, truthfulness and hopefulness having seen the script begin as a seed commission at the Bush and witnessing Waleed write a full first draft in just a week.  As Waleed says ‘I wanted to see a play from a queer Muslim perspective that didn’t pander to the white gaze. So, I had to write it. I was also spurred by the difficulties that Gay asylum seekers face and wanted to shine a light on that.’ 

Waleed’s career highlights, (as well as appearing at the Bush, obviously) include ‘devising a piece of work with a mate (the brilliant director that is Zoe Lafferty) and doing a few work-in-progress performances. It was so joyous, that I was like ‘I just want every day to be like this and I’ll die a happy man’. It also changed my whole mindset to writing. I no longer wrote hoping something would get put on, I was writing because I was going to put it on. It gave me agency and showed me a route to getting my voice out there.’ 

“You can cancel my Netflix but don’t touch my Spotify. I grew up on Hip Hop, R’n’B, Garage, Desi and then became an indie boy, I love Electronica and good Pop. So I have an eclectic taste.”

But before seeing The P Word, he advises not to do your homework; ‘I like knowing the bare minimum about a play, it’s nice to rock-up and be surprised by something. Ideally, I’ll go with a mate so you can have a good post-show discussion. That’s when I get to cosplay as a panellist for Newsnight Review. The best feeling is when a friend forces you to see something you think you have no interest in and it turns out to be brilliant.’ 

Plus be sure to keep your ears open for the playlist in the Bush bar this Autumn, ‘You can cancel my Netflix but don’t touch my Spotify’ says Waleed, ‘I grew up on Hip Hop, R’n’B, Garage, Desi and then became an indie boy, I love Electronica and good Pop. So I have an eclectic taste. I also use music as a way into my writing, so I have a playlist for everything I’ve ever written’.  

Once you’ve seen the show, don’t forget to message us with the tune you think best sums up The P Word and we’ll add it to the playlist!

You can listen to Waleed’s The P Word playlist on Spotify here.

The P Word opens 9 Sept. Find out more and book here.