Theatre review: Refugee Boy (Citizens Theatre)

Refugee Boy
Refugee Boy

The perfect antidote to dehumanising immigration statistics and tabloid outrage, ‘Refugee Boy’ puts a human face on the scare stories.

Adapted from Benjamin Zephaniah’s second novel by fellow poet Lemn Sissay, the play shines a light on the system those fleeing brutal persecution are confronted with on their arrival to the UK.

The boy of the title is Alem, a 14-year-old who visits London with his father only to be abandoned on the streets. It’s the final desperate act of an Ethiopian parent whose marriage to an Eritrian woman has unwittingly made his family the enemy of both sides in a brutal border war.

Alem, played with heart-rending pride and stoicism by Fisayo Akinade, quickly enters the asylum system and is sent to a children’s home before being fostered by a well-meaning Irish family.

Gruelling flashbacks of the horrors suffered are juxtaposed with clinical courtroom scenes, showing a system which often caters to reactionary politics rather than a simple belief in humanity.

There’s little to fault in the kinetic production, which has a uniformly excellent cast and a stunning set made up of ruined buildings and suitcases - cleverly illustrating the constant state of flux in which refugees are forced to live.

Alem grows in stature with every new person he meets, the odds of him breaking free of his past improving by the day - until his father’s long-promised return has unexpected consequences.

The final scene distills all that has come before into a single effective indictment of the UK’s asylum process.