Refugee Boy

Benjamin Zephaniah adapted for stage by Lemn Sissay
West Yorkshire Playhouse
West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds

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

Happy days at West Yorkshire Playhouse. The first class production of Doctor Faustus in the Quarry is now joined by a tremendous production of Lemn Sissay’s adaptation of Bejamin Zephaniah’s novel Refugee Boy.

The Courtyard Theatre is an adaptable space and for this production an intricate but solid set is plonked across the width of an end-on stage. It’s a great set. Torn wire net fences, the back of a tatty brick building which is itself almost scaffolded by dozens of battered suitcases (upon, around and beneath which the energetic cast scamper like randy squirrels). Windows in the building are adaptable, letting onto terrace houses, bus stop, whatever. And, holding it all, a black velvet sky which is sometimes splattered by stars and once becomes the apparent source of drifting snowflakes.

Refugee Boy is a challenging story of our time. A fourteen-year-old boy, Alem (Fisayo Akinade), is left in the UK by his father (Mr Kelo, played by Andrew French) in order to save him from the brutality of civil war. Alem is an intelligent innocent.

In one long, packed sequence of scenes, we see Alem making his way through an all too familiar culture. Sissay and McIntyre do not hang about. There’s never a dull moment. The heavy hand of teenage brutality, bureaucratic indifference, bloody civil war and good intention slaps and punches. But throughout director Gail McIntyre maintains her recognisable lightness of touch and deeply humane perception of the essential goodness in people.

And although tragic, this play is funny. The writers provide barrow-loads of sharp lines and exchanges. The cast deliver them with a panache unusual so early in the run of a complex, high energy production. So there is plenty of laughter in the full house. Not the belly laughs of coarse humour but the laughter of recognition, which stems from the repeated realisation that, yep, that’s how we poor creatures are. Add to that moments of emotional intensity and you have an accessible and potent mix. I’d like to see kids brought to see this show.

The cast of six (Akinade, French, Rachel Caffrey, Dominic Gately, Becky Hindley, and Dwayne Scantlebury) double and triple with remarkable skill and adaptability. Twice I was fooled and thought that a new cast member had appeared on stage. The acting is consistently superb.

Nobody here stands around waiting for another to ‘do’ a speech. These actors work their socks off all night. In a multiplicity of characters they are always in character, working their through-lines whether written or not. It’s one of those gorgeous nights in the theatre when no single actor escapes my admiration. Delightful! Rare!

But then, give McIntyre a handful of thespians and she somehow creates a family of dedicated actors who appear to have worked together forever. It’s a stunning gift and its application is a joy to behold. Even the moments of alienation, when for fluid fleeting seconds an actor becomes a stage hand, add to the excitement of this fine production. Such moments are as obtrusive as birds in a blossom tree. And this production is as welcome as spring. See it soon.

Reviewer: Ray Brown

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