Refugee Boy at the West Yorkshire Playhouse

This is a review from March 2013. 

Refugee Boy is now on a national tour and is about to start a new run at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. 

So I thought it was an ideal time to dust this review off!!

As you know, I’ve been very excited about the West Yorkshire Playhouse production of Refugee Boy; finally attending a showing on Saturday evening. 
For details about the show, please visit the West Yorkshire Playhouse. You’ll find a video on the production and galleries. 
The play is only on for the next few days, so if you fancy it, don’t hesitate!
You can also find our interview with the WY Playhouse’s literary director on Refugee Boy HERE and a chat about upcoming projects HERE
A 14 year old Ethiopian/Eritrean boy is left in England by his father after a holiday. His parents are desperate to keep him safe, far from the conflict that is ravaging their homeland. They themselves are positioned squarely in the centre of the violence, due to their mixed marriage.
Despite his best efforts to fit in, Alem is isolated, bullied and frequently homesick, not only for his parents but also for his native tongue and land. Even the stars are different now.
Alem is initially housed at a children’s care home before being placed with a foster family – the Fitzgerald’s, while seeking refugee status. His story is one of identity, belonging and finding a place in the world to call home.

Father and Son
Photographer – Keith Pattison
Before I go onto the review proper, I must take a moment to admire the inventive set design. The creative use of suitcases as a motif and as the building blocks for the set, portrayed not only the transient nature of the accommodation provided in England but also allowed a constant visual reminder of Alem’s sense of otherness. He is foreign with every breath; living his life out of a suitcase; always ready to run.
The transformative nature of this set was pivotal required as it was to stand in for the outside of an English children’s home, a court, a kitchen and the violence racked streets in the border areas of Ethiopia and Eritrea.
The cast interacted with the set as though it were a jungle gym – racing around it, crawling under it, hiding within it – lending an almost dance like element to the production and a near continuous sense of forward momentum.
Sweeney, Alem, Alem’s parents
Photographer – Keith Pattison
The 25 (!) year old Fisayo Akinade is astounding as Alem – balancing just the right degree of innocence and optimism with the agony of his abandonment and forlorn need to belong. This is never more clearly demonstrated than during his first sight of snow – a truly evocative and magical moment within the play. While Alem is cheerful, good natured and willing, he is no sap. The boy who can wax lyrical about Charles Dickens begins to carry a cheese knife for defence after a vicious bullying incident. He forgives Mustapha (Dwayne Scantlebury) – his only friend – for not helping him, but gently pushes to know why, determined not to merely accept such behaviour as his due. 
Photographer – Keith Pattison
Regardless of how affable Fisayo’s portrayal – the heart of Alem’s story is contained within the father-son relationship and Akiade and Andrew French are note perfect here. 
Not only do they convey the difficulties of the initial decision to leave Alem, but they also manage to make clear the rifts and differences that emerge as Alem begins to grow away from his parents, taking on board the influences and directions of his new residence. 
Additionally, they occasionally share dialogue, either repeating certain phrases or speaking for and alongside one another, further cementing their lifelong bond. 
While all six members of the cast were universally stellar – the following two performers deserve especial praise. Rachel Caffrey played Ruth Fitzgerald as a bouncy, energetic and occasionally sulky teenager to perfection. Within this persona, she (and her on screen mother, the wonderfully understated Becky Hindley) bring to life the realities of foster parenting, especially those of asylum or refugee status – from the desire to help and provide security to the harsh reality that this boy – like so many others – might be plucked from their midst with no warning and sent away.
Then, transformed by a mere head scarf, she became Alem’s mother – a character who carries huge emotional impact despite never speaking a word. In fact, at no point is there any interaction between Alem and his mother yet nevertheless Caffrey convinces utterly.

Alem, Mustapha and Ruth
Photographer – Keith Pattison

In a very different way; Dominic Gately was a compelling presence regardless of the role he took on – the coldly distant barrister, the warm if worn down foster father and the garrulous unpredictable Sweeney. He seemed to physically transform in front of us – one moment volatile and unpredictable, the next a supportive shoulder to cry on. When he was in play, I couldn’t tear my eyes away.

Mrs Fitzgerald and Alem
Photographer – Keith Pattison
The cast were on stage for the entirety of the production – at some points it felt as though they were providing additional witness to the events taking place. Simple devices – like all supporting characters jumping to their feet during a dramatic moment created a claustrophobic sense of urgency that haunted the audience, building anticipation for a resolution.
Lemn Sissay – himself Ethiopian-Eritrean – wasn’t Benjamin Zephaniah’s first choice for adapting the book, despite the two having a friendship spanning many years (the author had originally hoped to offer a local first timer the challenge). However, it’s hard to imagine another version that could so perfectly translate this story to the stage. While the book was an individual’s journey; the play is an ensemble piece, with every character adding to the protagonists experiences.

Photographer – Keith Pattison
Running at just over an hour and a half, I’m glad that there was no interval to break the narrative flow. Sissay has created a fluid, compassionate and empathic piece. His dialogue is particularly impressive – and the nuances between the speech of his adults and teenagers, locals and foreigners, professional and family are further emphasised by being portrayed by the same actors in multiple roles. Accents, phrases and individual quirks combine to create a greater whole – giving the audience the sense of a fully fleshed out world.
There are no stereotypes to be found here – no victims, no bullies. Even the least character has some detail provided which transform them from being a convenient plot device to feeling like actual people, with experiences of their own that inform their actions.

Photographer – Keith Pattison
At the heart of this wonderful story are people in need of additional support within our society. Throughout the Playhouse, there were a number of stalls with information for charities that work with asylum seekers and refugees and related areas. For me this demonstrated not only the Playhouse’s commitment to exploring the human experience, even when it isn’t pretty, but also its concerted effort to learn, engage and change its local community in a positive way. That might sound over the top to some, however; with content like this; I felt it was important to place the story within a wider context.
Incorporating elements of poetry and dance, this vibrant and energetic adaptation of Benjamin Zephaniah’s seminal novel had a tremendous impact on me. I left the theatre physically exhausted from the emotional journey undertaken.
It’s been many years since I read Refugee Boy and while there are a number of difference between the original and its adaptation; it felt to me that the spirit of the tale came across in a vivid and powerful way.
Am I gushing? It feels like I’m gushing. If this reads as though penned by an enthusiastic inarticulate 5 year old, then remember this. Every review boils down to only two points. Here are mine –
  1. I liked it an awful lot.
  2. I think that you will too!
Benjamin Zephaniah
Stage Adaptation – Lemn Sissay
Director – Gail McIntyre
Set Design – Emma Williams
Alem – Fisayo Akinade
Alem’s father – Andrew French
Mustapha & others – Dwayne Scantlebury
Sweeney, Mr Fitzgerald & others – Dominc Gately
Mrs Fitzgerald & others – Becky Hindley

Ruth Fitzgerald, Alem’s mother & others – Rachel Caffrey


Theatre Reviews


2 thoughts on “Refugee Boy at the West Yorkshire Playhouse

  1. Pingback: Song of the Day – Week 42 | DrNeevil's Notes

  2. Pingback: Song of the Day – Week 42 | Drneevil Archive

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s