Poet, musician, writer, actor – since Benjamin Zephaniah came to prominence during the 1980s, there seems to be no limit to the different spheres he can turn his attention to. Although primarily best known for his poetry, he has also written four novels, and Zephaniah’s friend Lemn Sissay has undertaken the job of adapting his second book Refugee Boy for the stage.
It may be an intimidating task to adapt a close friend’s well respected novel, but Sissay has more than risen to the challenge. This is a beautiful production, bringing Zephaniah’s characters vividly to life with humour, sympathy and a huge dose of poignancy. Additionally, the relatively short running time of 85 minutes means that not a word nor scene is wasted.
Refugee Boy tells the story of Alem, a 14 year old boy from Africa, who has had to flee his home during the bloody Eritrean–Ethiopian War. Originally on “the best holiday ever”, Alem is thrown into the maelstrom of children’s homes and foster parents when his father returns to Africa without him, coming to the conclusion that he would be safest remaining in England.
Alem’s story is obviously not without its depressing moments, but Zephaniah and Sissay inject this tale with lots of humour and some lovely characters. Fisayo Akinade is quite wonderful as Alem, his sweetness and vulnerability shining through (so well in fact, that it becomes something of a shock when he finally loses his temper late on in the play and pulls a knife on a tormentor) and he interacts brilliantly with Dwayne Scantlebury, who plays his best friend Mustapha. There are also fine turns from Rachel Caffrey, as Alem’s teenage foster sister, and a startling performance from Dominic Gately who can switch convincingly from the frighteningly psychotic bully Sweeney to Alem’s kindly foster father Mr Fitzgerald.
Sissay’s script is warm and amusing, especially when exploring Alem’s adjustment to teenage life in London (“so bad means good, and wicked means excellent?”) and he deals well with the flashbacks to Alem’s family’s horrific life back home in war-torn Africa. There are also some beautifully written passages (most notably when Alem sees snow for the first time), but every character here is so well-drawn, it’s impossible not to care about them from the first minute – which makes Alem’s journey all the more affecting. Sissay and Zephaniah have reached beyond the stereotype of a ‘benefit grasping immigrant’ and shown the human side of such a situation.
Emma Williams’ stage design is almost a character itself, an impressive multi-level house with piles of symbolic suitcases acting as steps, and managing to act as a multitude of locations. Gail McIntyre’s direction is energetic and fast-moving, and she beautifully handles set-pieces like Alem’s court hearing for refugee status by having the cast face and direct the audience directly.
The ending, without giving away too much, is suitably heartbreaking – you could hear audible sobs as the curtain came down. In an age where the far right are always ready to take advantage of discontent caused by economic adversity, Refugee Boy should be required viewing for people of all ages.