Endearing tale of coming of age

Refugee Boy

Birmingham Rep

*****

BENJAMIN Zephaniah is one of Birmingham’s most celebrated writers and Lemn Sissay beautifully adapts his chilling, political and endearing story for the stage.

In this we meet fourteen year old Alem Kelo, an innocent young boy forced to live in a children’s home in London as a refugee away from his parents due to civil war in their homeland Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Through Alem’s emotional journey of the new world, mixed with tragic happenings, Zephaniah and Sissay comment on the way modern society, especially the political domain, view immigration today and present us with a story that will touch the heart.

Director Gail McIntyre leads the highly talented ensemble and creates a world that is sure to stay in your mind long after the performance is finished. McIntyre’s unique ideas and expertise presented by the company from The West Yorkshire Playhouse are sure to make Zephaniah proud.

One particular idea that truly stood out was the doubling of roles. This six part ensemble took glorious command of the stage with every character they portrayed. The strong focus that everyone gave to the script and stage made the whole performance ever more touching.

The set is a feast for the eyes. The imagination runs wild before the play starts as the audience soak up the urban atmosphere, observing a dark and dreary London street, intertwined with suitcases and levels piled high used as stepping stones for each performer to make their mark.

 The rigid scaffolding that holds up the London walls alludes to an edgy world that is soon to be played out by the phenomenal ensemble. The cast use the set as a powerful asset to aid their performance, creating transitions with their bodies that flow and add to the hard-hitting theme of the story.

Fisayo Akinade as 14-year old refugee boy Alem

For Fisayo Akinade, Alem is the perfect role. The endearing charm that he gave to the insightful and wondrous boy is utterly transfixing for the audience from beginning to end. Akinade paints the picture of Alem that is so precise and delicate that it fills us all with hope and longing for a better future.

Akinade presents Alem in a beautifully tragic way. His wide-eyed sincerity of wanting to fill the world with love is completely torn apart from his dreams throughout the course of the play. Akinade then shows a profound transition from boy to man thanks to the awful circumstances of war, politics and life.

Dominic Gately was most impressive in giving his interpretations of two contrasting characters. We first see Gately as hard teenager Sweeney, creating a truly absorbing character, lonely and lost in the world of a children’s home. He makes us see the dark secrets of his young troubles that dared not be uttered out loud. He is then Mr Fitzgerald, the father of a Northern Irish refugee family who foster Alem. It is beautiful to see his transition from angry teenager to a deflated father who, not adverse to trouble himself, still finds the power to override his personal emotions for the sake of his family. The stark difference between Gately’s characters shines a light on the actor’s natural talent and is a pleasure to watch.

The rest of the ensemble captured the essence of Zephaniah’s arguments and always held true to the whole picture. Dwayne Scantlebury was brilliant as the funny Mustapha, Alem’s best friend who had had his own share of heartaches.

 Sarah Vezmar also shows a very convincing Ruth Fitzgerald and is a great asset to the ensemble, as is Becky Hindley as Mrs Fitzgerald, who also is great at the Northern Irish twang. Andre Squire as Mr Kelo, Alem’s father gives an emotional account of a father willing to do anything for his family. At one point, near the end of the play, in an endearing and captivating monologue, Squire presented a part of his soul. His portrayal of this wonderful character was like no other.

Working perfectly in sync with each other, the invisible bond between each and every person made this difficult performance even stronger. It was as if the cast invited us into their group, oozing love and telling us that we are strong enough to overcome tragedy.

Elizabeth Halpin 

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