We live in politically tumultuous times. Along with the underlying threat of war, cut backs on government spending are causing people problems closer to home. These days, it’s all too easy to turn a deaf ear to the struggles of others. Chickenshed have taken the invisible trials and tribulations of a young refugee, from the book Refugee Boy, and transformed them into a gritty and compelling piece of theatre.
Refugee boy is a striking new play which looks at a young boys experience in a strange land. The main character, 14-year-old Alem Kelo, is likeable and innocent, with a strong moral compass. The audience are rooting for him as he attempts to navigate life in London, which is culturally miles apart from his birthplace of the then disputed Ethiopian / Eritrean territory.
Initially Alem finds himself in a children’s home where he is the subject of intimidation. The menacing Sweeney, played by Will Laurence, takes advantage of his trusting nature. Laurence also plays the role of an African soldier and a lawyer. The accents he uses for each part shows off his broad range. He demonstrated versatility and a strong stage presence. There was a parallel between the character of a militia man in Alem’s homeland and the thuggish, street wise Sweeney. Both created the same sense of menace, showing that evil is evil the world over.
When in Britain, Alem’s father keeps his head down and acts meekly. He urges his son to do the same, convinced that if they make minimal fuss they will pass through the court system and be granted asylum. One of the main conflicts in the play is between Alem, who is becoming philosophical and westernised in his thinking and Mr Kelo, who has seen more, and is more practical and down to earth.
The play is being performed in Chickenshed’s studio theatre. This is a more intimate space than the auditorium, and it lends itself to more introspective, sometimes darker shows. In an amusing, but strangely warped and sinister musical interlude, Eminem’s My Name Is, is edited to contain the phrase ‘refugee boy’. Elsewhere the repetitive chant of ‘refugee boy, refugee boy’, drives home the message that labels are damaging and demean people’s worth.
Alem’s foster family, The Fitzgeralds, are sympathetically portrayed. They are warm and caring towards him. The father, although slightly bumbling, is well intentioned and wants the best for Alem. But their daughter Ruth is mysteriously stand offish. You also see her mother struggling to hold it together at times, and it is soon revealed that Alem is disturbing a tragic memory in the family’s past which they are yet to process.
The play is based on a novel by the poet and author Benjamin Zephaniah, and was adapted for the stage by Lemn Sissay. Sissay has a personal investment in the story because he spent time living in childrens’ homes and with foster parents growing up. The book Refugee Boy was written by Benjamin Zephaniah and published in 2001. He is an extremely successful and admired writer and bard, with sixteen honorary doctorates to his name.
Refugee Boy has a banging modern soundtrack featuring drum ‘n’ bass tunes and some better known pop ones. Although the civil war which creates tragedy and upheaval in Alem’s life took place in the 1990s, it is very much of the current day. Perhaps Refugee Boy will challenge people’s’ prejudices towards those displaced by events in Syria and future conflicts. The ending in particular is hard to swallow.