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Review: Refugee Boy at Northern Stage, Newcastle

Sissay and Zephaniah combine to tell a moving tale in Refugee Boy. Mathew Di Salvo went to Northern Stage to catch the performance

****
Scenes from the play Refugee Boy
Scenes from the play Refugee Boy

Lemn Sissay’s brilliant stage adaptation of his close friend Benjamin Zephaniah’s moving novel addresses hard-hitting issues in an accessible and humorous way.

The story of a 14-year-old Ethiopian/Eritrean boy, Alem, left in England by his parents to escape war back home’ is not a particularly comfortable one, yet both poets are well equipped to tackle such a topic.

Zephaniah’s tale about fitting in, identity politics and loss couldn’t have found a better playwright to bring it to the stage – nor, perhaps, a better director than Gail McIntyre.

Sissay jumped at the opportunity to write a play about a protagonist he felt such a connection with, being an African foster child himself, and his enthusiasm is obvious.

Fisayo Akinade, who plays Alem, is remarkable as a boy growing up in a foster home having been deserted by his parents in an alien country during a ‘holiday’ to the UK.

Naïve and overly friendly, he finds England strange and is an easy target for ridicule and xenophobia from other, equally frustrated foster children.

Flashbacks to turmoil in his homeland and court hearings to determine what will happen to him are performed with such sincerity that it’s upsetting at times.

The clear willingness of his foster parents to help him, and poignant scenes in which Amel and his father look at the stars, are also very moving.

A hyperactive bully, brilliantly played by Dominic Gately, raises the issue of neglected children in the British care system. Gibbering and aggressive, Gately invites us to empathise with this meanest of characters when a background of horrific abuse is revealed.

Even in these dark moments, however, the play retains its sense of humour.

Alem’s attempts at street slang, his faux pas and his efforts to defend himself with a cheese knife convey the ugliness of the protagonist’s situation in a touching but informative way.

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