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“Let us read, and let us dance;
these two amusements will never do any harm to the world.”

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Mothers Day!

I made this: Niamh Foley at 8:00 am 0 comments Links to this post
I was going to buy you
a card with hearts of pink and red,
but then I thought
I'd rather spend the money on me instead.
It's awfully hard to buy things
when one's allowance is so small,
so, I guess you're pretty lucky
I got you anything at all.

Happy Mother's Day to you.

There I said it.
Now, I'm done.
So how 'bout getting out of bed,
and cooking breakfast for your son?

Calvin and Hobbes
Bill Watterson

The Calvin and Hobbes Lazy Sunday Book

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Site will be changing

I made this: Niamh Foley at 9:25 pm 0 comments Links to this post
This week we shall be changing our host from blogger to wordpress.

So if your links go all wonky - that's why!

As soon as possible, I'll get the details of our new and improved book blog posted here, on twitter, facebook, tumblr et al!

Friday, 7 February 2014

Interview with WY Playhouse Literary Director - Part 1

I made this: Avid Reader at 7:50 pm 0 comments Links to this post
This is a review from March 2013. 

Refugee Boy is now on a national tour and is about to start a new run at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. 

So I thought it was an ideal time to dust this interview off!!
ALEX CHISHOLM
WEST YORKSHIRE PLAYHOUSE
ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR (LITERARY) 



Leeds Book Club caught up with Alex Chisholm a few weeks ago, for a quick chat between putting the final touches on Refugee Boy and collaborating on Sherlock and Doctor Faustus.

Refugee Boy will open on the 9th of March and run until the 30th. Copies of the play and book will be available from the Playhouse. 

The interview will be posted in two parts. This section shall focus on Refugee Boy while part 2 will look at the inner workings of the Playhouse. 



Thanks very much for taking the time to speak with us. We appreciate that must be incredibly busy at the moment.

Refugee Boy is a 2001 novel by Benjamin Zephaniah about a young adult named Alem. He is abandoned in the UK due to conflicts in his country of origin.

How does something like this production of Refugee Boy get started? Does a writer or director approach you?
It happens in all sorts of different ways. In this particular instance it was our associate Director that deals specifically with young people and their theatre. She knew Benjamin Zephaniah and the book and said ‘I’d like to do a version of this’. Looking back through old files the other day, I came across my original document that had a list of potential adaptors. I came up with that list, we talked about it, we liked Lemn Sissay (a poet and playwright) – it turned out that he had himself a very similar history so that all dovetailed very well with the book. It’s been a very long journey getting it to this place for all sorts of different reasons.
It’s pretty much there now. Final few tweaks to do. It’s pretty much there. Then again, it’ll change again in rehearsal. And it’ll open on the 9th of March with its first performance with rehearsal beginning about four weeks before that.

Refugee Boy – is it an accurate portrayal of the Ethiopian and Eritrean conflict?
There isn’t, in fact, in the book that much detail about the nature of the conflict and the little bit that’s in there isn’t necessarily terribly accurate, but that’s not the point of the book. The point of the book was to follow the journey of the Refugee Boy himself.
The two tiny flashbacks that he does in Ethiopia and Eritrea – the whole piece takes place in England –  there’s this sort of prologue of two tiny snippets and they are intentionally abstract and not realistic and very similar to each other another.
Benedict – one of our contacts – is himself from Ethiopia and Eritrea and he came over as a young man – not quite as young as the character in the book. Benedict says that you can pick at it; you can tear away parts and say ‘Well actually that wouldn’t really happen that way’ but on the other hand he read that book as a sort of alternative narrative of his own life because essentially the story was his and a lot of the emotional journey and the journey of adjustment to a different country was absolutely his.
You wouldn’t read Refugee Boy in order to gain insights into the Ethiopian and Eritrean conflicts. You do so in order to gain insights into what it is to be a refugee, an asylum seeker in this country.

Refugee Boy – the Charity sector
Since getting involved with this particular project, we’ve become much more in contact with the org and people and agencies that work in that area in our region. We’ve been struck both by the immense generosity and hard work and selflessness and kindness of people who work and volunteer.
And also about the terrible circumstances and deprivations which go along with that. In particular destitution being the big issue we’re dealing with at the moment – there’s a particular thing that’s happening right at the moment with the way that housing is changing which –  I imagine you’re aware of – it’s causing particular problems.

Refugee Boy – won the Portsmouth Book Award – and certainly caught the zeitgeist. Author Benjamin Zephaniah is renowned for his music, poetry and writing. This is a particularly inherently human book revolving around isolation, alienation and finding your own place in the world.

Benjamin Zephaniah
Have you spoken with him about the book or the WY Playhouse adaptation of it?
I haven’t spoken to him directly to him about it. However, I’ve read and heard him speak about it. I don’t know if there was a particular incident that got him interested in this but I know that he himself felt empathy for people who have gone through that experience. Coming from a Caribbean background, but one where he felt that he understood that isolation and being misunderstood as a young person. He also has a keen sense of justice that comes from his background and having experienced injustice. As a Rastafarian, who is practising and religious and spiritual; he particularly had an interest in this journey. [That of] seeming outcast and that essential notion of finding a family.
The Ethiopian and Eritrean conflict was reaching a certain point around the time that he was writing it so there was a public awareness at that time.

How did you find the right playwright to adapt this novel?
Lemn Sissay who did the adaptation, is also a poet. Actually it’s one of those strange coincidences that happen in life. I had read a play of his called Storm I think (written for Contact theatre in Manchester) and it was set in a children’s home and I felt that it captured the voice of those young people extremely well. It was his first play and incorporated some poetry into the play writing. And he wrote those young people in a well rounded, un-clichéd, unsentimental way – which is very rare.
They were first and foremost young people and they happened to be in a situation and they reacted to that situation. Rather than them being types. That’s what made me think about him in the first instance. Because there is a part of the book where Alem goes to a children’s home and then a foster home so writing a piece where the main character is a young person. He’d directed a lot of young people. There was something in Lemn’s writing where I felt that he could find that character.

So I called him up, said that we were interested in adapting this book called Refugee Boy by Ben Zephaniah and had he heard of it? He said no, what’s it about and I summarised ‘it’s about a young boy, born half Ethiopian and half Eritrean, abandoned in this country and raised in the care system’. And he just exclaimed ‘You’re kidding me. That’s my life.’

And that is, it’s genuinely his life. He is half Ethiopian and half Eritrean, his mother came to this country to give birth to him here and then abandoned him here and went back. Lemn’s gone on a huge journey – which is quite well documented – to discover what his past is. And he started off in a children’s home; was then fostered; then he was essentially rejected by his foster home; returned to the children’s home; grew up there and left at 18 years and that’s when he was given his papers. This was when he discovered his birth name. He’d had a completely different name up until the age of 18. He gravitated towards Manchester, discovered poetry and found his voice and became, or was kind of taken up by John G at Contact and given a lot of support. Discovering that, he felt that he was the right person to take this on. He has brought a lot to the adaptation.

On making necessary changes from the original
There are some aspects of the play that are not actually in the books, but this was right. If you read the book, it reads very well but there are certain things missing that you’d want for a play. It’s telling you a story but the additional insight from any other characters apart from Alem can only be inferred.
It works in a novel but not as naturally as a play. So you don’t necessarily know what’s going on with Ruth or the foster parents. Basically they are ciphers. Although you do get a bit more from Alem’s father – the relationship between the two is fairly straight forward. There isn’t that much change in it.

Lemn Sissay
So, Lemn has sort of added aspects to that; while retaining the story of the refugee boy; keeping the central premise of the piece, but there’s a very strong relationship between Alem and a friend of his from the children’s home that is totally invented. It doesn’t exist in the book.

You need people for your central character to talk to. Otherwise it’s a one man show. And funnily enough, Lemn has already done that show. He did it about his own life. It’s called ‘Something Dark’ and it’s absolutely brilliant. It’s a one man show.
But he’s done it. It’s not actually about refugee or asylum but about a young man coming to terms with having been abandoned – the search for identity.
You watch that show and think ‘you’re still standing?’ So I think it’s really…now we’re at a place where we have I think a really good play from a really good book.  They are going to be there own things. Benjamin Zephaniah has read the play and was happy with it. He found it a bit strange – in that it is and isn’t his novel.
Different people have different levels on control. Benjamin has been very open and relaxed which has been lovely. It’s very good that it is happening.

Did you ever doubt that it would all come together?
The thing is that there is a burst of activity and then there would a long long while where nothing happened at all and then there’d be another burst of activity and then a long long while where nothing happened at all. But we’ve got the momentum back.

[All of this is of course worthwhile as] I think it is a play that will engage a lot of different people in a lot of different ways. I think that there are a lot of people who are broadly sympathetic to the issue around refuges and asylum seekers and will be interested in it for that reason. I think that there are people who will be interested in it because they’ve heard of Benjamin Zephaniah or enjoy his poetry and his writing. And maybe people who’ll try it because maybe their kids had to study it in school and hopefully they will bring them along.

I’m hoping that it will reach out to quite a broad audience.

Now the production is coming together, how involved are you at this point?
To an extent…personally I’m less involved now that the director Gail McIntyre [has taken the reins]. Certainly less once it goes into rehearsals. I’ll be coming to see it towards the end of rehearsal and once it goes into preview. I mean I’m very involved in how the events are happening so I’ll be working through the whole time and I’m probably more involved in this one that others because I’ve been so involved in the making of it. We’ll see. It depends on how much Lemn wants to be around. Whether there’s a need for me to manage the dynamic between how much you want it to be changed, how much you don’t want it to be changed.
Every production is different and needs different kinds of support.

Touch wood – it’s a huge tremendous success. Will it tour?
Our aim is to tour it the following year if we can make everything work out. Because Benjamin is a successful writer and that is a very popular book – it’s studied in schools – there is a certain amount of interest from other theatres. That’s the idea really. We’ll see; we’ll see what happens.
It’s not even always down to whether it’s a success. It’s down to money and what budgets are like and what other plays have been planned for [for other theatres].

And then of course, it’s onto the next stage of the project.

Well best of luck with the opening. And thanks so much for chatting with us. 

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Interview with WY Playhouse Literary Director - Part 2

I made this: Avid Reader at 8:08 am 0 comments Links to this post
This is a review from March 2013. 

Refugee Boy is now on a national tour and is about to start a new run at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. 

So I thought it was an ideal time to dust this interview off!!

ALEX CHISHOLM
WEST YORKSHIRE PLAYHOUSE
ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR (LITERARY) 




Leeds Book Club caught up with Alex Chisholm a few weeks ago, for a quick chat between putting the final touches on Refugee Boy and collaborating on Sherlock and Doctor Faustus.

Refugee Boy will open on the 9th of March and run until the 30th. Copies of the play and book will be available from the Playhouse. 

The interview will be posted in two parts. The first section shall focus on Refugee Boy while this part will look at the inner workings of the Playhouse. 

Let’s jump straight in.  What is a literary director?
I am responsible for everything to do with writers and writing. That is everything from running schemes for very very new writers through to things like managing the commission and writing of a production like Refugee Boy. Pretty much anything to do with the writing of plays falls within my remit.

That can be incredibly varying. Some people think that it’s only to do with new writers who are not very well known and creating completely original work, but that’s not the case. For instance this season we’ve got Refugee Boy – an adaptation of a novel; Doctor Faustus – with two completely rewritten acts within the construct of the pre-existing play – that’s Colin Teevan. We’ve also have Sherlock which is a completely original storyline employing the characters of Arthur Conan Doyle. That’s by a writer that I’ve worked with a lot in the last few years – Mark Catley.

We’ve got the Transform season – where we work alongside a lot of writers. In fact there’s a particular project that I’m very involved in that which is 3 writers creating a piece on being at Leeds Markets – At the Market – and that’s what we’ve most recently being doing interviews for. I’m involved in all of these things to different levels and extents.

I’m also responsible, of course, for developing newer writers and also for working with slightly more experienced people on creating plays that we will hopefully eventually do.

On the new Sherlock
Sherlock is a lot of work because it’s a completely original script. And in fact coming up with a completely original Sherlock plotline is actually quite a challenge. It’s a very enjoyable challenge at that. I’m really enjoying it.
I can’t say that I’ve read a great deal of the Sherlock books. I’ve read Scandal in Bohemia and Hound of the Baskervilles – I know the classic series and films and the recent series which I’ve enjoyed very very much.
[We each take a moment to properly appreciate Benedict Cumberbatch]
They are extremely good updates of them. They are steeped in a deep love of Conan Doyle.

This is something else. The decision was made to keep it Victorian so it’s not up against the show. And also, it is not an adaptation of an existing story. It’s completely original and still orientates around a mystery.
We did some years ago, a comedic version with the Peepolykus (People Like Us) theatre group of Hound of the Baskervilles. Essentially there are two performers that set it up. One was Basque – he played Sherlock and there was something very amusing about Sherlock having a very pronounced accent.  It was fantastic and hugely enjoyable and well managed the combination between comedy and a genuine love of mystery. It’s Hound so everyone knows ‘who dun it’ but that wasn’t the point. It was a fun-ride type of scary.

The Peepolykus production had people becoming groupies of this particular show. But you can only do that with a certain type of production. We have to come up with something that manages to negotiate these different genera’s.  It is based in London. Still working on that – it’s a work in progress but I think it’s looking really exciting and I’m looking forward to that too.
So that was very enjoyable but this is something totally new. It’s a periodic version that can use the clichés around Sherlock and use them to great effect.

Do you write yourself?

I have done a bit. I have written a children’s play, which was performed here a little while ago. It was called The Magic Paintbrush – an adaptation of a Chinese folk tale. It was lovely and I really enjoyed doing that.


I’ve also done a couple of translations. Which is writing of a different sort! And there’s been quite a lot of putting together of shows from different materials.

I also direct. Though not this season. Actually I suppose I am in a way. I am co-directing ‘At the Market’, part of the Transform project, I’m one of the directors of that.

Which of those titles do you use to describe yourself – Writer or Director?
I suppose I’d say Director. Because that’s where I started. That’s predominantly how I see myself and I see all the other skills as falling under that category. I think one of the major functions that I play is managing the dramaturgy of the scripts - working directly with the writer myself or with the director or managing a team. 

An awful lot of project management goes on within a building of this size. I do enjoy that side of it too. You get a lot of satisfaction seeing things coming to fruition. So; like with Refugee Boy; I’m one of the people that’s making that happen. It’s one of the great aspects of this particular theatre is that it pays as much attention to the whole round experience, not just the way that it feels on the stage but also in the many different ways that people will relate to that to how we make our connections within the community.

It’s important to give people a good experience across the project. Good admin is about making sure that you do things well. And take care of people in the process. It’s not that easy but in the end that’s what it comes down too.

At the West Yorkshire Playhouse
[I’ve been] eleven years (at the WY Playhouse). It is home. Leeds feels like home – it’s the longest I’ve been anywhere since I left home at the age of 18. I was at university then going around the country for 7 or 8 years, ostensibly based in London but not necessarily there. Then I came to Leeds for this job. 

What has been of particular interest to you?
Well, obviously there are high points for me that involve work that I’ve actually done. There was a piece called Dust which was created by a writer called Kenneth Yates.

Again it was a verbatim piece, based in an asbestos factory about a woman called June Hancock. Having nursed her mother through pleural mesothelioma which is a cancer based on asbestos; she was then diagnosed with it herself. She subsequently sued the company responsible – or an American parent company of the people who owned the factory for compensation.
It’s an amazing David versus Goliath story. We told that with a community company and opened it in an old warehouse just literally a stone’s throw from the factory in Armley. Then we took it to the Courtyard for a week. That was an amazing experience.

Her children were there. Obviously June Hancock had passed away several years before. Pleural mesothelioma either kills you quickly, at a medium rate or slowly. The second longest survivor was just over three years. It’s terminal, there is no remission from it and it’s particularly nasty. It’s the cancer of the pleural lining. You can’t do chemotherapy and the tumour grows around your lungs so you can’t breathe. It’s also got an incubation period. You can get it from exposure to just one fibre. But it can take 40 or 50 years to manifest and by then…

The factory is still there. It’s concreted up, but it’s still there. It’s right within a residential area and was at the time. The local school’s playground is just over the road from the factory and the children used to play in the dust from this factory. Alan Bennet went there. And Barbara Taylor Bradford. Neither of whom have mesothelioma. It’s random chance basically.

But June Hancock did. There’s a …there’s one of those maps that has the entire borough’s of Leeds on it. Its colour coded according to incidences of Mesothelioma. White is normal – 1:10 000 or whatever. Black is a certain density. Basically the entirety, the whole area around  Armley is black.

So in fact – one of the shocking things – you don’t live in Armley do you? Because the stuff is still there. It’s in the attics, it’s in the terrace. Not just of the factory but all the houses around it. The company paid to clean up the area – they sealed off large areas and attics and so on. And in some sort of deal for the clean up; they had this taken off the land registry. As though it never existed. So if you buy a property in Armley now; it won’t show up on the surveys.
You get told on the quiet – if you live in Armley, don’t convert your attic. Because it could be lethal.

You can see why this is a piece that I’m so proud of doing. We worked very closely with Russell and Kimberley – June’s children. We also raised over a thousand pounds for a related charity. As well as, I think, doing a genuinely good piece of theatre.

Would you say that theatre is a reflection of the social world to you?
I probably am one of those people who got into theatre who thought that I could made a difference in the world.

Other things that I’m particularly proud of include – oh, I did a play with (Leeds born) Mark Catley – writer of Sherlock called Scuffer – which we described as a Beeston Rom Com, which I really really enjoyed. It was lovely – very funny, very touching and very enjoyable and did very well.

There have been lots of things that I’ve really enjoyed doing here.

As to the future?
There are some very exciting ideas which I can’t necessarily say at the moment. I think that yes, there is a gravitational pull to social stories. Not to say that these can’t be entertaining and fun.

That was one of the things I enjoyed most about Scuffer. It had a point to it. It was also incredibly entertaining. I don’t think that it was written with the Rom Com genera in mind. Yet, it did live within that genus to an extent as there was a character that was useless that came good in the end. There was such a huge amount of pleasure derived from that, seeing that happen, seeing someone overcome their … uselessness! Actually, make something more of themselves. Rise to the occasion. 

We’ve certainly got quite a literary season this year. May be of interested to those who are literary minded.

Doctor Fautus
Colin Teevan puts it very well. He says that the whole play straddles very well the tradition between two different sorts of styles – it’s modern in terms of manipulations, motivations and the psychology of the characters and then is also a medieval mystery play. 

The central section is all medieval mystery play. It can be quite heavy going actually. There’s not much else going on. It’s almost relentless. There are just a few big set pieces. And for comedy it just wasn’t.... A lot of renaissance humour is word play and references and puns and we don’t get it. It doesn’t mean anything any more. The third and Forth acts are not good and there’s a theory that they weren’t actually written by him – Kit Marlowe – but perhaps by a student.  

So, I think it’s going to be really interesting seeing people’s reactions to it. I think that it really does go renaissance, renaissance, MODERN. It’s quite a stark change, an attempt to make it knit together. I like what Colin has done. It echoes the words that Marlowe used. It’s not trying to blank verse or … its set in the modern world, following some of the incidents in the Marlowe or the original Doctor Faustus but with a narrative line following through that. It’s not something we do so often in this country. Here we prefer our plays to be slightly homogenous. We tend to get a bit nervy when people start mixing up their genera’s.

On changing things up
There is the gang that turn up to Shakespeare and laugh at all the jokes because they understand it. Because they have studied it. And sometimes, [they are so busy getting it] they don’t seem to always get to enjoy it. 

I remember when Kneehigh did Cymbeline – they largely rewrote it; almost entirely rewrote it and performed it at Stratford , they were invited as part of the RAC festival of Shakespeare when they did the full works.
It was a very strange experience for them. Normally the Kneehigh audience shows up knowing who Kneehigh are and what to expect from them. But a lot of people came to the play because it was Stratfrod. And they wanted to watch Cymbeline. Not because it was Kneehigh. And Cymbeline got a lot of shit in it too to be perfectly honest. As beautiful as some parts of it are…a lot of the humour is missed – there’s a lot of it that I think is supposed to be funnier than people actually react to it. But Act 5 was hysterical. It just becomes plain exposition ‘I did this, and I did that, and you need to know for the plot that I also did this’.

I did speak with one of the people from Kneehigh and they said that it was very odd. They had people in the audience with the script, with a copy of the play – their penguin copy – on their laps. They were trying to read it as the play was going on and of course not being able too because they had completely rewritten it. And then one person who was doing that – and it being Knee High they had somebody in the audience – turned around and snarled ‘this is a disgrace’. Oh dear. So that person didn’t have a good time.

On bringing plays and scripts into the theatre – does it put a company off?
Oh god yes, I was at a production at the Old Bush, not the new one, a tiny tiny space. And it was the press night, no it was the night afterwards. The press night had clashed with another press night so a lot of the reviewers actually came that night.

There can only have been about 30 of us, friends, press and others in the whole audience. At least 3 of the press were sitting on the front row had the script to the play in their hands. And they bought it and were reading along to it. I mean it was a new play, a new production and surely watching it should have been the point.

It’s the critics. They are essentially kind of signalling that the production is neither here nor there. All they are really interested in is what the text says, so they are reviewing almost as a piece of literature rather than the play itself. They see the production as merely a transmission mechanism rather than anything that has its own independent, artistic and creative life. If you are going to look at it like that then you really are better off just getting a copy of the text. Because there’s no choice then.

Right – we’d better let you get back to it. Thanks so much for chatting with us.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Refugee Boy at the West Yorkshire Playhouse

I made this: Avid Reader at 8:00 am 0 comments Links to this post
This is a review from March 2013. 

Refugee Boy is now on a national tour and is about to start a new run at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. 

So I thought it was an ideal time to dust this review off!!


As you know, I’ve been very excited about the West Yorkshire Playhouse production of Refugee Boy; finally attending a showing on Saturday evening. 

For details about the show, please visit the West Yorkshire Playhouse. You'll find a video on the production and galleries. 

The play is only on for the next few days, so if you fancy it, don't hesitate!

You can also find our interview with the WY Playhouse's literary director on Refugee Boy HERE and a chat about upcoming projects HERE




A 14 year old Ethiopian/Eritrean boy is left in England by his father after a holiday. His parents are desperate to keep him safe, far from the conflict that is ravaging their homeland. They themselves are positioned squarely in the centre of the violence, due to their mixed marriage.

Despite his best efforts to fit in, Alem is isolated, bullied and frequently homesick, not only for his parents but also for his native tongue and land. Even the stars are different now.

Alem is initially housed at a children’s care home before being placed with a foster family – the Fitzgerald's, while seeking refugee status. His story is one of identity, belonging and finding a place in the world to call home.

 
Father and Son
Photographer - Keith Pattison
Before I go onto the review proper, I must take a moment to admire the inventive set design. The creative use of suitcases as a motif and as the building blocks for the set, portrayed not only the transient nature of the accommodation provided in England but also allowed a constant visual reminder of Alem’s sense of otherness. He is foreign with every breath; living his life out of a suitcase; always ready to run.

The transformative nature of this set was pivotal required as it was to stand in for the outside of an English children’s home, a court, a kitchen and the violence racked streets in the border areas of Ethiopia and Eritrea.

The cast interacted with the set as though it were a jungle gym – racing around it, crawling under it, hiding within it – lending an almost dance like element to the production and a near continuous sense of forward momentum.
Sweeney, Alem, Alem's parents
Photographer - Keith Pattison
The 25 (!) year old Fisayo Akinade is astounding as Alem – balancing just the right degree of innocence and optimism with the agony of his abandonment and forlorn need to belong. This is never more clearly demonstrated than during his first sight of snow – a truly evocative and magical moment within the play. While Alem is cheerful, good natured and willing, he is no sap. The boy who can wax lyrical about Charles Dickens begins to carry a cheese knife for defence after a vicious bullying incident. He forgives Mustapha (Dwayne Scantlebury) - his only friend - for not helping him, but gently pushes to know why, determined not to merely accept such behaviour as his due. 

Photographer - Keith Pattison
Regardless of how affable Fisayo’s portrayal – the heart of Alem’s story is contained within the father-son relationship and Akiade and Andrew French are note perfect here. 

Not only do they convey the difficulties of the initial decision to leave Alem, but they also manage to make clear the rifts and differences that emerge as Alem begins to grow away from his parents, taking on board the influences and directions of his new residence. 

Additionally, they occasionally share dialogue, either repeating certain phrases or speaking for and alongside one another, further cementing their lifelong bond. 

While all six members of the cast were universally stellar – the following two performers deserve especial praise. Rachel Caffrey played Ruth Fitzgerald as a bouncy, energetic and occasionally sulky teenager to perfection. Within this persona, she (and her on screen mother, the wonderfully understated Becky Hindley) bring to life the realities of foster parenting, especially those of asylum or refugee status – from the desire to help and provide security to the harsh reality that this boy – like so many others – might be plucked from their midst with no warning and sent away.
Then, transformed by a mere head scarf, she became Alem’s mother – a character who carries huge emotional impact despite never speaking a word. In fact, at no point is there any interaction between Alem and his mother yet nevertheless Caffrey convinces utterly.
 
Alem, Mustapha and Ruth
Photographer - Keith Pattison
In a very different way; Dominic Gately was a compelling presence regardless of the role he took on – the coldly distant barrister, the warm if worn down foster father and the garrulous unpredictable Sweeney. He seemed to physically transform in front of us – one moment volatile and unpredictable, the next a supportive shoulder to cry on. When he was in play, I couldn’t tear my eyes away.
 
Mrs Fitzgerald and Alem
Photographer - Keith Pattison
The cast were on stage for the entirety of the production – at some points it felt as though they were providing additional witness to the events taking place. Simple devices – like all supporting characters jumping to their feet during a dramatic moment created a claustrophobic sense of urgency that haunted the audience, building anticipation for a resolution.

Lemn Sissay – himself Ethiopian-Eritrean – wasn’t Benjamin Zephaniah’s first choice for adapting the book, despite the two having a friendship spanning many years (the author had originally hoped to offer a local first timer the challenge). However, it’s hard to imagine another version that could so perfectly translate this story to the stage. While the book was an individual’s journey; the play is an ensemble piece, with every character adding to the protagonists experiences.
 
Photographer - Keith Pattison
Running at just over an hour and a half, I’m glad that there was no interval to break the narrative flow. Sissay has created a fluid, compassionate and empathic piece. His dialogue is particularly impressive – and the nuances between the speech of his adults and teenagers, locals and foreigners, professional and family are further emphasised by being portrayed by the same actors in multiple roles. Accents, phrases and individual quirks combine to create a greater whole – giving the audience the sense of a fully fleshed out world.

There are no stereotypes to be found here – no victims, no bullies. Even the least character has some detail provided which transform them from being a convenient plot device to feeling like actual people, with experiences of their own that inform their actions.
 
Photographer - Keith Pattison
At the heart of this wonderful story are people in need of additional support within our society. Throughout the Playhouse, there were a number of stalls with information for charities that work with asylum seekers and refugees and related areas. For me this demonstrated not only the Playhouse’s commitment to exploring the human experience, even when it isn’t pretty, but also its concerted effort to learn, engage and change its local community in a positive way. That might sound over the top to some, however; with content like this; I felt it was important to place the story within a wider context.

Incorporating elements of poetry and dance, this vibrant and energetic adaptation of Benjamin Zephaniah’s seminal novel had a tremendous impact on me. I left the theatre physically exhausted from the emotional journey undertaken.
It’s been many years since I read Refugee Boy and while there are a number of difference between the original and its adaptation; it felt to me that the spirit of the tale came across in a vivid and powerful way.

Am I gushing? It feels like I’m gushing. If this reads as though penned by an enthusiastic inarticulate 5 year old, then remember this. Every review boils down to only two points. Here are mine –
  1. I liked it an awful lot.
  2. I think that you will too!

REFUGEE BOY
Benjamin Zephaniah

Stage Adaptation – Lemn Sissay
Director – Gail McIntyre
Set Design – Emma Williams

CAST
Alem – Fisayo Akinade
Alem’s father – Andrew French
Mustapha & others – Dwayne Scantlebury
Sweeney, Mr Fitzgerald & others – Dominc Gately
Mrs Fitzgerald & others – Becky Hindley
Ruth Fitzgerald, Alem’s mother & others – Rachel Caffrey
 

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