Refugee Boy, Benjamin Zephaniah’s highly acclaimed novel, has been newly adapted for the stage by Lemn Sissay and receives its world premiere at the West Yorkshire Playhouse this month.
Chasing teenager Alem Kelo’s separation from his parents during an insurgent conflict on the Ethiopian border, the play follows Alem and his father as they adjust to life in 1990s Britain.
Sissay’s adaptation of the novel bears a similarity to Zephaniah’s earlier play, Face, with heavy use of cross-cutting and non-linear narrative techniques. Fractured in its presentation, the story is formed much like Alem’s own identity from scattered elements which slowly become a confident whole at the denouement. Pacy and constantly intercut, the writing has a modern technique whilst the dialogue has a strong authenticity which is both convincing and accessible.
As a play about adaptation and coming-of-age, Refugee Boy is bound to appeal to younger audiences with identifiable motifs, such as father-son relationships, separation, peer pressures and bullying. Not so much a piece about racism but rather the absorption of cultural difference in society, it particularly studies the effect of Western education on a developing teenage identity. Teenagers will empathise with Alem’s imposed solidarity and loneliness, despite his altruistic adoption by a kindly British family. Alienated and disorientated, yet driven by an eagerness to learn, Alem’s characterisation succeeds in addressing themes which are politically topical as well as universally relevant to modern youths.
An excellent cast double up in various roles. Dominic Gately is superb as an adoptive father and delinquent bully, drastically shifting personas with seamless authenticity. Fisayo Akinade demonstrates an impressive range of emotion as Alem and convinces as a boy who is in his early teens; with a permanently knotted brow and playful physicality, he shows a strength and underlying fragility. The scene when he first sees snow is a beautifully subtle piece of performance. The supporting cast are equally commendable and buttress a very believable world on stage.
The West Yorkshire Playhouse is constantly innovating in set design and Refugee Boy is no exception. Visualised on a towering shambles of brickwork, girders and suitcases, Gail Mcntyre’s direction places much movement up and down the set, successfully transporting the audience across continents and warzones whilst using simple props, such as a washing basket, to shift to a cosy domestic setting. Stylistically lit with projected graphics and lilting musical interludes, the visuals will leave an indelible impression on audiences.
Refugee Boy is destined to be popular with schools and families thanks to its documentary drama authenticity. Educationally insightful, with well-defined themes, literary accessibility, contemporary humour and sophisticated presentation, it is highly recommended entertainment for all generations.