Reviewed by Flossie Waite
A Chickenshed production
At Chickenshed until 13th May
For ages 12+
Though published back in 2001, Benjamin Zephaniah’s powerful and affecting book for young adults, Refugee Boy, is just as relevant to audiences today. 14-year-old Alem Kelo flees his home when his family face persecution in the border war between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Like Papertale’s Map of Me, Alem’s story focuses just as much on the difficult, painful and at times brutal reality of asylum-seeking in the UK, as it does on the violent horror he leaves behind. But Chickenshed’s adaptation, with script by Lemn Sissay and direction from Jelena Budimir, reduces the lyricism and poignancy of Zephaniah’s novel to a series of unsubtle attempts to move the audience. The most obvious example of Refugee Boy taking the easy route to emotional impact is Alem’s X-Factor-style asylum application, in which the judge delivers his verdict with a series of pregnant pauses Simon Cowell would be proud of.
Conscious of its timeliness, the production relies too heavily on the audience’s awareness of and connection with real-life events, and the audience’s ability to project them onto Alem’s story, rather than providing the necessary character or narrative development to earn empathy. The capable cast are limited by unclear and stilted storytelling: Alem mostly seems young for his age, naïve and unsophisticated, but then suddenly reveals completely unexpected street smarts. This inconsistency distracts from what is otherwise a really interesting moment, in which Alem uses society’s uninformed view of refugees to his advantage, lying about his experiences in Ethiopia with the knowledge that no one will challenge him. It is also the first time we understand his character as more than a sweet, polite innocent, caught up in appalling circumstances, but these depths are barely skimmed before we return to stereotypes.
The heart of Refugee Boy doesn’t start pumping until the final few minutes, when the production begins to explore the role class and social structure play in Alem’s experience. Even once he lives in England, Alem still exists in a completely different world to the people in power who will ultimately decide his fate: whether he has a right to stay or will be forced to return. It’s this that binds Alem to his local community, some of whom were initially cruel and unwelcoming, as they realise they share a common enemy. Alem is no longer an outsider but accepted into the fold as part of the ‘us/them’ fight; ‘us’ meaning local, ordinary people, against ‘them’ – the courts, judges and people in suits: “Men and women with strange accents and funny clothes will tell him to go back to the country he came from, they know nothing about our world’. This is the first convincing interrogation of the nation’s response to the ‘migrant crisis’, and it’s a shame that the play ends so shortly after reaching this complex, confusing turf.
Unlike Papertale’s Map of Me or Unicorn Theatre’s My Mother Medea, Refugee Boy isn’t uncomfortable, provocative or challenging, but allows its audience to passively sit back rather than feel implicated in Alem’s story. For real insight and impact, it would be better to read the news: Refugee Boy doesn’t expand our understanding of the refugee experience, but makes it more manageable, and palatable.
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