Refugee Boy

Playwright: Lemn Sissay

Time: 7.45pm

Until 30  March

WYP, Leeds

Short walk from Leeds train or bus station

Box office: 0113 213 7700


7.15 pm I arrived incredibly early, as I wanted to savor every second of this play. Since Lemn Sissay told me back in 2012, he was adapting Benjamin Zephaniah’s Novel Refugee Boy and that it was going to be on at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, I have been very excited.

7.40 pm just before the play was due to start, I was nervous that my expectations were too high…

7.45 pm The lights faded and the cast of six actors walked on for that first minute I was worried. There was no dialogue, they just kept looking up at the ceiling and I literally held my breath. This wasn’t what I expected.

There was no need for nerves; as the story unfolded I was caught up in the drama. It’s not a carbon copy of the novel slapped on to the stage. It’s an emotional, at times deeply gripping play that has a poetic heartbeat to it that is captivating.

Refugee Boy depicts the story of 14 year old Alem (played by Fisayo Akinade), who’s mixed Ethiopia-Eritrea parentage places him homeless and in severe danger from both fractions involved in the Ethiopian war. His father (played by Andrew French) brings him to the London on a ‘holiday’ only to leave him to fend for himself. He is placed in to the care system, befriends Mustapha, a boy who is also dealing with a troubled past. Mustapha’s passion for cars is initially funny, then as we learn more about his back story, it is very poignant .

Alem has to navigate his way through a complex, unsympathetic legal system as well as dealing with cultural differences and bullying.  The play explores the challenges that refugees face and comments on the UK’s asylum system.

It’s Alem’s determination to be reunited with his family and his naivety that provides the heart wrenching moments and the humor which keeps us going through a sensitive subject matter. Simply put this is about a boy who is desperate to find somewhere to call home.

Dominic Gately, Becky Hindley and Rachel Caffrey  play Alem’s Irish foster  family (father, mum and sister) as well as various other roles and they do this seamlessly.  The extra cast member who plays a key role in transporting the audience to Alem’s reality is the creative ‘suitcase stage’ that is a visual reminder that his life is unstable, constantly being packed and unpacked by his family, his former homeland, British officials, bully’s and even by himself.

As this play covers lots of experiences that shape Alem, such as the loss of his childhood, living in a British care home, being fostered by an Irish family, fighting the British Asylum system and dealing with grief I did feel that the play could have been longer so that the issues could have been covered with a bit more detail, including more emphasis in Alem’s fathers’ vanishing act and the emotional consequences it has                                                                                                              on both characters.

Having said that, this could be merely due to the fact I didn’t want the play to end. The question ‘so what happens to Alem next,’ was a persistent murmur that floated around after the play which made me smile because surely this means the audience has engaged with the character and has a vested interest in his future?

The play is aimed at a young audience (10 years and over), which possibly accounts for why the play wasn’t as dark as the novel. The violence was often implied though, which was quite effective at times.

Once I was home, I could curl up with the published script and enjoy reliving the play all over again.


Reviewer:Leanna Benjamin is a short story writer, playwright and  former radio presenter. She set up Divine Creations, a collective set up to produce and sell handmade jewellery to raise funds and awareness of ‘Action for M.E.’ She is also setting up the Useful Craft Project to enable disabled people  to learn a variety of crafting techniques.


Sour Lips

Playwright: Omar El-Khairy

Time: 7.45pm

Until 16 February

Oval House, London

Nearest underground: Oval

SourLips Marketing Image crop smaller


Oval House and Paper Tiger Productions

A collection of emerging theatre and filmmakers


Sour Lips is the creative staged interpretation that relates ‘The Story of Gay Girl in Damascus’.  In the summer of 2011, the media was fixated on Amina Arraf, a blogger writing vivid accounts of the Syrian government’s crackdown on Arab Spring protesters.  Her blogs were stopped suddenly when her cousin Amina, reported that she had been taken away, off the streets and pushed into a car, by government security agents.


The play gives ample space to the various versions and interpretations of the story that were bandied about in online and offline media – at the same time highlighting the way in which stories can also be manipulated in order to use the press – and the way in which they can get totally out of hand.
The opening did not ensnare me.  As a book editor, I probably would have cut it the first line, ‘Let me in. Easy to remember (which is good), but bland. It was useful as a ‘lead in’ to the story, but did nothing for the story. However, as it moves on, it becomes stronger. The same with the direction, it became much more of a performance, gelling with the script in an imaginative informative way.

I liked the chorus of three; probably because I like repetition in poetry. The play effectively combines intellectual insight interjected with these repetitions,  representing social media antics with the chant of “Facebook/Twitter/Google Buzz”.

The simple open square layout was effective as the social media/pr/ western world chorus could then reach ever corner of the globe in the one small contained space.

All too well, does Paper Tiger’s production reveal both the danger and the manipulation of being over-liberal and the danger that when there is a real case of persecution, it may not be believed…”Sour… is pretty much how the story of the hoax and media reaction leaves me.” , said El-Khairy in reference to the title.

The televised visuals on the wall were less effective (especially if you find Jeremy Paxman irritating; the last thing you want to do is see him when you go to watch new theatre)  .

After 50 years, it is good to see that the Oval is still as bolshi as ever, encouraging experimental and radical talent.

Sour Lips is ambitious in its undertaking yet more importantly, it does push boundaries – which is what art has to do.


Sour Lips by Omar El-Khairy published by Oberon

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