Refugee Boy at West Yorkshire Playhouse

photographer Keith Pattison  Fisayo Akinade (Alem Kelo), Dwayne Scantlebury (Mustapha) & Rachel Caffrey (Ruth Fitzgerald)
photographer Keith Pattison
Fisayo Akinade (Alem Kelo), Dwayne Scantlebury (Mustapha) & Rachel Caffrey (Ruth Fitzgerald)

Rhys Thomas (@RhysWrites) takes time out from his Sociology degree to write his first blog. Here’s his thoughts on Refugee Boy … on its last couple of showings at @WYPlayhouse

On Monday 25th March I went to see ‘Refugee Boy’ at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. The play has been adapted from Benjamin Zephaniah’s 2001 novel of the same name, by Lemn Sissay.

The play kicks off by introducing us to Alem, a young boy who has to escape to the UK as a refugee, leaving his Ethiopian father and Eritrean mother behind to deal with the so called ‘border dispute’ between the two countries.

Alem finds it difficult to adapt to the language and culture upon his arrival in England, making his journey from a hotel room to a rough and ready care home, before eventually finding himself in foster home in suburban London. The play does well to demonstrate the challenges facing those who arrive in this country to seek refuge, with ‘Refugee Boy’ being just as relevant a story today as in 2001 when Zephaniah’s novel was released. The story provides entertainment, yet at the same time showcases a desire to show immigration in a sympathetic and humanistic light.

The cast for this play was relatively small considering the scale of the storyline, with only six actors performing a number of different roles. Luckily the cast operates exceptionally well. Fisayo Akinade gave a strong performance as lead character Alem, yet his five co-stars were every bit as central, with some playing as many as five characters convincingly. One of Fisayo’s co-stars was particularly impressive in adapting to the role of a tough school kid. However his character’s strong mancunian accent was maybe a little too convincing….!

At times Sissay’s script was at odds with the book, as I was surprised to see the play contain a scene in which Alem holds a knife to the throat of another boy. For me this scene was unnecessary, firstly due to the number of children I saw throughout the theatre, but perhaps as importantly the scene ruined the innocent view of Alem which I felt Zephaniah did well to retain throughout the original story. Despite this, the script was well written, managing to maintain a unique feel, yet mostly still staying true to Zephaniah’s original story. Sissay also cleverly compresses a number of bit part characters from the book into one character in the form of Alem’s friend Mustafa. This move maintains Alem’s personal relationships but allows the audience a more free-flowing storyline.

The set design is also very impressive, with travel bags used to make up a large portion of the structure. The production crew uses a clever mix of image projections and background noise to convincingly change the look of the set to depict locations ranging from the streets of East London and Ethiopia, to scenes in a care home and a courtroom.

This play takes you on a dramatic journey, with heart-warming highs and devastating lows. The story is easy to follow, and it’s hard not to connect with the main character. Despite the serious and quite often harrowing nature of Alem’s story, the cast manages to keep the mood bright and even throw in jokes on a few occasions. Although some scenes may make this play unsuitable for smaller children, this play is definitely one to recommend for the family, and the relatively short duration helps to make this show an enjoyable watch.

Overall I would recommend anyone reading to watch this play, whether you’ve read the book before or not. It’s a refreshingly compassionate view of immigration, with good acting and even a few laughs.

Refugee Boy runs until the 30th March, so if you get a chance give it a go!