Refugee Boy (Citizens, Glasgow)

This post was first featured on TV Bomb on 15th March 2014.

When a poet decides to adapt a fellow wordsmith’s novel for the stage, there opens the possibility of creating a text that is too beautiful, too honed, too well refined. It must take true courage to even consider adapting a Benjamin Zephaniah novel for the stage; for one, Zephaniah’s voice is so singular and distinct, always managing to coax new emotions out of the vernacular. Lemn Sissay approaches this task with boldness and heart, and it pays great dividends in Gail McIntyre’s production.

Alem Kelo, a fourteen year old boy of mixed Ethiopian and Eritrean heritage, arrives in England with his father from his civil war ravaged homeland to enjoy “the best holiday of his life” – only to find himself abandoned and alone when his father decides it is safer for him to remain in London. What follows is his distressing, disjointed journey through the British care system, and his enduring desire to be released from its labyrinthine chaos.

This production is assured, confident, and compassionate. The central performance given by Fisayo Akinade is nothing short of exceptional; he is at once charismatic and endearing, beautifully portraying the difficulty in trying to keep hold of an identity when everything that makes you ‘you’ is so suddenly fractured. Alem struggles to remain a child to his absent parents, whilst at the same time becoming a young adult in the hands of the judicial system.

Gail McIntyre ensures that the tempo of the performance is absolutely in keeping with the pulse of the language; movement is constant, vital, exciting, and nerve-wracking. Touching too are the moments showing the fractious strain placed upon Alem’s host family, who struggle to bear the pain of loving and losing another foster son. Though the script is often warm and amusing, it does not give a neatly packaged, positive ending – rather, it is one of guttural hurt and loss. But as Alem’s father beautifully points out, it is essential to have darkness in order to see the stars.

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