JOYCE MCMILLAN on REFUGEE BOY at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 15.3.14.
4 stars ****
AT THEIR BEST, theatre and other forms of storytelling have a rare power to change our perspective, and to make us walk for an hour or two in another person’s shoes; and when that person belongs to a group that is often demonised in our society, then the act of storytelling inevitably becomes political. The Citizens’ Theatre has long been a powerful centre for community theatre work involving refugees and asylum seekers in the city; in the last few weeks, it has seen the revival of the smash-hit cmusical Glasgow Girls, about a real-life group of Glasgow teenagers who campaigned to save their asylum-seeker classmates from deportation.
And this week, the theatre has been playing host to West Yorkshire Playhouse’s fine 80-minute show on the same theme, based on a book by leading English poet Benjamin Zephaniah, and adapted for the stage by Lemn Sissay. In Refugee Boy, we follow the story of Alem, who finds himself alone in London after his parents – his father Ethiopian, his mother Eritrean – decide it is too dangerous for him to remain in the war-torn border country that is their home.
Haunted by dark flashbacks to the horrific moment when his family home was torn apart by armed men, Alem runs the gauntlet of life in a care home, and racist bullying in the playground, before he finds refuge with the Fitzgerald family, who foster him. Even there, though, he is pursued by the legal demands of a hostile asylum system, and by the memories of a previous, lost refugee foster-child that haunt the Fitzgerald household.
Some of these issues are resolved by the play’s end, with Alem and the Fitzgeralds’ daughter Ruth campaigning side by side against deportation, like the Glasgow Girls. There is relentless tragedy, though, in the background of Alem’s young life. And all of this is powerfully captured in Gail McIntyre’s forceful and fluent production, which is partly designed to impress young audiences – with a hard-edged urban soundtrack, and plenty of dance and movement around a multi-level back-court set – but never tempted to sacrifice the story’s complex emotional detail. Fisayo Akinade gives a heart-stopping performance as Alem, humorous, quirky, desperately moving; and he’s supported by a terrific five-strong ensemble, in a show that tours on to Newcastle, Nottingham, Manchester and Brimingham, and that should find as warm a response in all of those big, beautiful and complex modern cities, as it has found this week in Glasgow.
Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, final performances today.