Image: West Yorkshire Playhouse
At the level of individuals, politics can be a prison. It binds ethnicities to boundaries, families to states and its victims are those who remain caught between its narrowly and neatly defined borders. Lemn Sissay’s portrayal of the harrowing conditions facing a young refugee as he is forced to leave his home country, alone, and tries to build a new temporary existence in a different one, is both brutal and captivating.
Adapted from Benjamin Zephaniah’s novel of the same name, Refugee Boy follows 14 year old Alem, played by Fisayo Akinade, after his father is forced to leave him in London to escape the enduring Eritrean-Ethiopian conflict. Akinade’s performance is compelling and his ability to transition so convincingly between Alem’s projected nightmares of his past and the ensuing problems he now faces is exceptional. The other members of this six person cast represent the various systems seemingly unleashed against Alem at various stages in his journey. He is moved first to the care home. Here, troubled bully Sweenie rules, and it is he that ultimately pushes Alem to run away – although not before he has befriended long-term child in care, Mustapha, played by Dwayne Scantlebury. From the streets, Alem is taken to a foster family.
In writing the play, Sissay drew on his own experiences and his attention to the relationships founded within it represents a break from the original text. Anyone who has experienced the British foster care system will recognise only too well the often devastating problems facing both the child and the foster family, who inevitably grows to love them. For both Alem and the Fitzgeralds, performed accurately by Dominic Gately, Becky Hindley and Sarah Vezmar, stability depends on “the next court date”; as such, it is always just out of reach. From the court to the care home to the foster home, and to Alem’s home in Ethiopia, Emma Williams’ set represents the surreality of real refugee experience. The lighting combines with the characters’ sharp and quick movements to remind us of the distress Alem’s history, his present and his future causes him.
A collaborative project, director Gail McIntyre has worked closely with both Sissay and other members of the company to depict this story, one that is too frequently true for too many people living in the United Kingdom and around the world. She exposes poignantly the cruelties of the justice system, which, in the play, reduces the murder of Alem’s mother to “sad”. Under McIntyre’s direction, the play proves the power that humans working together beyond these many systems can have in rescuing others, both emotionally, and perhaps in the normal sense as well.
This is a seamless production by West Yorkshire Playhouse, made even better by the theatre’s close work in and with the city refugee communities it will visit as it tours the country over the next few months.