Suitcases. That’s the first thing that strikes you about Lemn Sissay’s stage adaptation of Benjamin Zephaniah’s 2001 novel Refugee Boy. There are suitcases everywhere. They are leapt over, sat upon, hidden behind. They are as integral a part of the staging as they are of the story itself.
Refugee Boy is the story of Alem. A 14-year-old boy, born to an Ethiopian father and Eritrean mother and consequently an innocent caught up in a civil war in his homeland.
Seemingly abandoned by his father during a holiday in England, Alem is left alone to deal with his sense of anger and confusion brought about by his abandonment whilst at the same time being torn between his desire to return home to his family and having to reluctantly create a new home in a foreign land as he moves between institution and foster care.
It is important, relevant subject matter and one that could, in certain hands, make for a very earnest and heavy play. The great success of this production is the line it walks between education and entertainment. It nimbly avoids any threat of becoming preachy or overtly worthy largely by portraying the world through the naïve and optimistic eyes of the teenage Alem.
It is possible that the conflict in Africa is not fleshed out quite enough for the layman and the scenes of the trouble there do not perhaps land with the impact they should but it is a small price to pay for not feeling like we, as an audience, are being lectured to.
Fisayo Akinade is superb in the lead role, a moving mix of innocence and anger, and he is not let down by the rest of the small but excellent cast. Emanating from the pens of Zephaniah and Sissay it is no surprise that there is a lyricism to the dialogue, which is perfectly complimented by Gail McIntyre’s fluid direction. Credit should also go to Jonnie Khan’s sound design and evocative projection work by Mic Pool.
The other star of this production is Emma Williams’ set, at first glance simple – no tricks or gimmicks here – but it quietly and irrefutably augments the message at the heart of this play. The staircase of suitcases leading almost as high as the North Star itself is a subtle yet immensely powerful symbol. In one way or another we are all travellers, all migrants and all hopeful of finding somewhere to call home.
Refugee Boy continues at the West Yorkshire Playhouse until 30 March. For further information visit www.wyp.org.uk