The Boy at the back of the class tells the story of Ahmet (Farshid Rokey), a mysterious new boy who sits in the empty chair at the back of Alexa’s London Primary school. He is a refugee. But none of the children know what a refugee is. Alexa is determined to get answers, befriend Ahmet and find his ‘missing pieces’.
I’ve struggled to watch the news lately. One war after another, lives lost in the channel, children suffering, atrocity after atrocity. It’s never ending. And disheartening. I wasn’t sure I wanted to burden the kids with a show about war-torn Syria and our country’s inexplicable inability to help its displaced. Perhaps something more light hearted?
But when I told my 8 year old we were going to review Nick Ahad’s adaptation, his eyes grew wide. “We read that at school mummy – it’s excellent!”
I couldn’t help thinking about this poignant lapse in judgement as I sat and watched the show at the Rose Theatre yesterday.
As you may have guessed the mise en scene is a classroom and the story is told through the gaze of the school children.
The first half is delivered from the perspective of Alexa (Sasha Desouza-willock), recently bereaved of her Dad and emotionally drawn to the boy with ‘the eyes of a Lion’.
With sincerity and innocence, her internal dialogue which breaks the fourth wall, reveals her confusion about Ahmet and his situation. She senses that he is different from her but at the same time, the same.
What language does he speak? Where is he from? What fruits does he like? Together with her ‘A team’ they embark on a mission to find out more. Climbing the clever jungle gym set (Lily Arnold) to the theme tune of mission impossible, they gameify their quest for answers.
‘Why don’t they stay in France?‘
It’s a light and perky start but the story darkens when the children overhear bigoted parents referring to ‘filthy refugees’ and their reliance on benefits. Brendan the Bully (Joe Mcnamara) paints a wonderful portrayal of how easily children are influenced by their parent’s prejudices with pitiful outcomes.
Alexa is bewildered by the cruel lack of empathy shown to Ahmet. Like Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (referenced in the show) the child’s perspective is a powerful tool in realising how far we’ve strayed from our moral compass.
Sadly for Ahmet, discrimination is ubiquitous. Even one of the school teachers holds racist beliefs, masked in passive aggression and turning a ‘blind eye’ but who is finally exposed at the end. A chilling reminder of how deep racism permeates our culture.
It sounds like heavy stuff but told with humour and heart, for the most part – we sat laughing. The adult cast skilfully embodies the playful, fidgety frivolity of childhood. Swinging from the scenery, tugging awkwardly at their sleeves and using lemon sherbets as playground currency.
We loved the characterisation of Clarissa the ballet loving brat (Zoe Zak) and Michael the gold stars hungry swot ( Abdul-Malik Janneh)
There is real tenderness coupled with scenes of riotous physicality. Fighting and football playing is captured with clever choreography (Kloe Dean and Maisie Carter) and complimenting sound effects (Giles Thomas).
In many ways this is a celebration of childhood, the power of friendship and the important message that we can all effect change, no matter how small. And yet there is an intended discomfort in the delivery. Both the first and second half start with a rude awakening. Sudden flashes of light, stage smoke and strobe lighting bring us back to Ahmet’s journey, danger and threat.
In the second half Ahmet tells his story of disrupted normality – his parents who got left behind and his sister who perished on the journey. Rokey plays this role with sensitivity to the complexity of his plight – a nine year old boy who has has seen the worst of humanity but still relishes in football and friendship.
With the border due to close, Alexa and her crew embark on a daring mission to reunite Ahmet with his parents. Distrusting of the PM and the press they identify their one chance – the Queen. A hilarious adventure to Buckingham Palace unravels where the children get mistaken for ‘tiny terrorists’. A wave of accidental press and subsequent support for their cause follows culminating in feel good finale which sees Ahmet and his family granted permanent asylum.
Overall this show his hugely entertaining but also thought- provoking. On leaving the theatre my six year old asked ‘ …but is that war stuff real…I thought it was just in movies?’ It’s a difficult but necessary conversation and one I had neglected to have till now.
This is an important show with a powerful message. The book was written by Onjali Q. Rauf in 2018 but remains depressingly relevant and, in the wake of recent events and a growing refugee crisis – ever topical.
Prepare to laugh, shed a tear and walk out with a little more kindness in your heart.
The Boy at the Back of the Class is playing at the Rose Theatre, Kingston until 22nd February ahead of it’s national tour. More info here
Recommended for ages 6+ but all welcome. My 6 and 8 year old boys loved this show and the 2hrs 10 mins (incl interval) flew by.
Petra Joan-Athene – Josie/Journalist
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