There is a blistering yet tender lyricism gnawing away at Refugee Boy—as well there should be, given it is a collaboration by poets Benjamin Zephaniah, upon whose book this is based, and Lemn Sissay, who has adapted this as a stage production. Director Gail McIntyre, of West Yorkshire Playhouse, has worked for a long time in Eritrea during the 1990s, and has met many people from agencies aiding asylum seekers. Real, lived experience—that of McIntyre, Zephaniah and Sissay—informs the structure and texture of this piece. The play retains a lot of grit, especially for a production aimed at audiences of all ages.
Sweet-natured fourteen year old Alem Kelo (Fisayo Akinade) is always alert, always looking over his shoulders, caught up in the border dispute between Ethiopia and Eritrea—where his father and mother, respectively, are from. He is spat out into London, seeking asylum, only to become corrupted by a teenage hierarchy in a children’s home, led by criminal Sweeney (Dominic Gately) and wannabe gangsta Mustapha (Dwayne Scantlebury). It isn’t long until he is swearing, posturing and hurling ‘yo’ mama’ insults (hilariously brandishing a cheese knife at one point) like a typical British kid, yet the simmering menace of civil war is never far away, as chillingly evinced by Malcolm Rippeth’s effective mood lighting.
To reinstate the feeling of transience, Emma Williams’ set comprises jagged corrugated iron and wire partitions piled high with suitcases acting as makeshift ‘seats’. The cast leap and swing cat-like between each ‘wall’, grabbing cases, often freezing on the spot as though caught in the crossfire.
That is not to say it is unremittingly grim, though. Akinade infuses Alem with a wide-eyed naïveté that is charming. He’s an innocent who values education above all else, which renders his situation heartbreakingly authentic. He is ably supported by Andre Squire, who plays his authoritarian but loving father and Sarah Vezmar as Ruth Fitzgerald, an idealistic if spoilt teenage girl from the Irish foster family he ultimately ends up living with. Indeed, Akinade’s supporting cast of five play a variety of roles with ease, combining galgenhumor with warmth.
Plays based on real events, particularly when dealing with issues of conflict, can be polemical and finger waving, but Refugee Boy never strays into preachy territory. Modern masculinity, family and finding one’s identity are the main motifs and Zephaniah’s words are reassuringly grounded. That is the reason his work resonates so much with young people.
Shakespeare and Dickens are consistently referenced by both Alem and his father—words of war and savagery as totems of a civilising influence—echoing Zephaniah’s troubled past where he was seduced by gang culture as a young lad in the West Midlands, eventually spending his time reading in a borstal. He escaped this other life because of education, and, as in his other works, the topic is dealt with deftly here. The play itself contains particularly tough lessons on brutality—tough, but very necessary lessons. It’s a vital piece, and not to be missed.