Unsurprisingly the cast of Refugee Boy took their bows this Wednesday to thunderous applause. With their raw, forceful, yet incredibly human performances, Alem (Fisayo Akinade) and his supporting actors completely blew us away. They successfully navigate through a civil war, knife crime, foster homes, and the government red tape raised around immigration, even managing to deliver a healthy dose of laughter along the journey.
The brand new play is based on a novel by master storyteller Benjamin Zephaniah, and adapted for the stage at West Yorkshire Playhouse by Lemn Sissay. The Playhouse has marked its debut by issuing sleek special edition copies of the text courtesy of Methuen and Bloomsbury. After seeing the performance it becomes obvious to anyone who didn’t already know that Zephaniah and Sissay have been friends a long time. They work extremely well together; Refugee Boy is a seamless weaving of narrative and performance that does enormous credit to them both. There is even a nod to Ben Zeph in the play – a rastaman poet is said to be helping Alem and his friends in their demonstrations against the decision of the British justice system. Sissay also infuses Refugee Boy with insight from his own experience as a half-Ethiopian, half-Eritrean growing up in Lancaster.
Alem’s resolutely upbeat attitude and determination to salvage something from the remains of his broken family is a not only inspirational but miraculous
The cast is aided by an incredible set, constructed of precariously stacked suitcases, a visual and ever present reminder of the asylum seeker’s unstable existence. A wire fence also is used effectively to juxtapose here with elsewhere. It is unnerving how quickly the play can transition between the ‘safe’ concrete jungle of central London and the war torn towns of Ethopia and Eritrea. As he struggles to adjust to being abandoned by his father, Alem is plagued by flashbacks and the boundary between the two becomes increasingly blurred. A change of lighting and we are plunged into a world of child soldiers and loaded guns. The first time this happens it is shocking, and we never really regain our equilibrium. In light of this Alem’s resolutely upbeat attitude and determination to salvage something from the remains of his broken family is a not only inspirational but miraculous. We are behind him all the way as he makes up his mind to campaign with new friends Mustapha and Ruth for refuge in England. And when his Father wants to lay low, out of politics, we recognize the truth of Alem’s reply – ‘Everything is politics!’ The echo of this assertion hangs in the air poignantly as we witness the final tragedy of Refugee Boy unfold.
Comic relief is provided in the form of The Fitzgeralds, Alem’s foster family, played ably by Rachel Caffrey, Dominic Gately and Becky Hindley. The latter have both appeared on Corrie. Mustapha (Dwayne Scantlebury) also familiarises Alem amusingly with the backward logic of the street, where ‘bad’ means good and ‘wicked’ means excellent. Alem meets Sweeney, also played by Dominic Gately, a character who fills the stage with his dangerous restless energy. However Sweeney, like us, finally proves that he is on Alem’s side, standing up for him at a crucial moment.
The best thing about this play is that it truly wins its audience. It involves us intimately in the development of a fast paced plot and airtight dialogue. The team at West Yorkshire Playhouse has also grounded the play in a programme of other contextual events, including ‘In Conversation with Lemn Sissay and Benjamin Zephaniah’ and ‘The Big Question’, a live debate about immigration happening this Saturday. Refugee Boy is a must see production, a fresh piece of theatre which has already provoked fresh attitudes to much debated issues.
words: Kay Anucha
images: Keith Pattison