I read Refugee Boy when I was a young teenager, and since then I have been a huge fan of Benjamin Zephaniah’s writing. I think the reason I am drawn to his work is because his stories are very close to home. This is why I was very excited to find out that there was a stage production of Refugee Boy touring the UK, and it would be popping into Queen Elizabeth Hall at the Southbank Centre for three days. I am so glad I went to see this performance.
Ethiopia and Eritrea are at war and 14 year old Alem’s parents are worried about his safety. While on a short trip to England with his father, Alem wakes up one morning to find he is left all alone in London. His parents think he will be safer away from the conflict, while all he wants to do is get back home. He doesn’t want to be the refugee boy any longer, but as his story unfolds, it becomes clearer that Alem’s reputation as a refugee is something very difficult to get away from.
The story is very well adapted for the stage by Lemn Sissay, who has made the action very easy to follow, allowing the performance to be well received by young people and refugee communities it hopes to connect with. Fisayo Akinade performs brilliantly as Alem, portraying the character’s intelligence and charm perfectly. I instantly warmed to him, and was engaged with his character throughout the piece. The cast worked very well together as an ensemble. In particular, Dwayne Scantlebury’s Mustapha character was enjoyable to watch, and the school groups I was watching the play with appreciated his humor and the slang he used. I heard a kid sitting behind me whisper to his friend “yeah he can bare cuss good you know.”
The set itself is very cleverly put together. Designer Emma Williams has created the set using suitcases which are put together to resemble an urban ghetto. The suitcases are a very significant part of the piece as the actors interact with them throughout the performance, producing fast paced movement sequences using them. I think director Gail McIntyre has been very successful in producing a performance that is able to reach out to audiences today without taking away from Zephaniah’s original novel.