Refugee Boy

Refugee Boy

Citizens Theatre, Glasgow

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Neil Cooper

A big red-brick inner city construction with towers of suitcases dotted across the stage becomes adventure playground, sanctuary and accidental prison for the 14-year-old boy at the heart of Lemn Sissay's stage adaptation of Benjamin Zephaniah's teenage novel. At times it looks like home, as Alem attempts to fit in with London's multi-cultural diaspora, from his foster family, the Fitzgeralds, to hyper-active bully Sweeney and his new best friend, Mustapha. At others it's as lonely as a prison cell, with Alem yearning for his own parents, caught in the crossfire of the Eritrean/Ethiopian war he has fled.

From flashbacks of Alem and his father gazing up at the North Star, to a first experience of snow with the Fitzgeralds' daughter Ruth, and discovering that very English chronicler of orphans, Charles Dickens, Alem embarks on an unflinchingly cruel rites of passage. While the judgment passed by social workers and lawyers inspires protest, external forces make matters even worse.

There is depth and weight to Gail McIntyre's production for West Yorkshire Playhouse, that takes its subject seriously while remaining thoroughly theatrical, as the cast of six navigate their way around Emma Williams' set. For all its impassioned heart and soul, there's a righteous but understated poetry that pulses through a street-smart but still fragile piece that never falls back on polemic. This is embodied in Fisayo Akinade's performance as Alem, who seems to grow in stature with each experience in a humbling and all too human play. Arriving at the Citz hard on the heels of David Greig and Cora Bissett's Glasgow Girls, this is theatre at its most engagingly crucial.