Refugee Boy review at Chickenshed, London – ‘full of heart’
Based on poet Benjamin Zephaniah’s young adult novel of the same name, Lemn Sissay’s adaptation of Refugee Boy is a well-paced but straightforward exploration of the life of a young asylum seeker.
Though Chickenshed’s production is imaginative and its cast passionate and convincing, the play itself toys unsubtly with the audience’s sympathies.
Alem Kelo, the refugee boy, is escaping the border war between Ethiopia and Eritrea in 2001. The difficulties he faces integrating at the local secondary school, with his new foster family, and dealing with the unsympathetic judicial system are identical to those facing refugees from, say, Syria today.
The soundtrack laboriously draws on noughties pop music, but the camaraderie and peacocking of teenagers is timeless and very amusing. Kyle Johnson and Chelsea Crowder are particularly good, and Will Laurence’s dual roles as schoolyard tough and renegade young soldier are performed with impressive complexity and nuance.
Sarah Booth’s hardworking set design is a triumph, with the centre roundabout becoming a dining table, a children’s play area and the blinding spinning wheels of justice as the scenes require.
It’s impossible not to root for Demar Lambert’s gentle, charismatic Alem. Sometimes his youthful goodness versus the unmitigated evil of the war and the coldness of the British bureaucracy makes for a black-and-white viewing experience, but miniature mysteries within the wider action (what happened to the last foster kid? Or to Alem’s mother?) keep the narrative from stalling.