Thanks to the rhetoric of populist politicians, the UK is edging ever closer to being a hostile environment for refugees, if we haven’t reached that stage already. But pointless slogans and expensive deportation schemes are swept away in Nick Ahad’s stage adaptation of Onjali Q. Raúf’s The Boy At The Back Of The Class, currently playing as Rose Theatre Kingston ahead of a tour.
Directed by Monique Touko, this co-production from Rose Theatre and Children’s Theatre Partnership is aimed at a younger audience, but there’s plenty for adults to enjoy, and learn, from this outstanding production.
For friends Alexa, Michael, Josie and Tom, days in year five are spent playing games, competing for gold stars, and navigating the school bully. That is until a new boy arrives; sitting at the back of the class, he doesn’t speak English, and no one knows where he’s come from.
These nine year olds haven’t heard the word ‘refugee’ before, and so we learn more about Ahmet, and the horrors he’s already faced in such a short life, from the perspective of the children. It’s eye-opening.
While some of the adults treat Ahmet with disdain, the children’s first instinct is to welcome him, invite him to play football, and offer him a Sherbet Lemon.
Not all the children are so welcoming, bully Brendan (convincingly played by Joe McNamara), refuses to accept Ahmet, but we learn he’s picked up his prejudices from his father, and it’s a further wake up call for adults in the audience.
As Ahmet’s plight is further explained, new best friend Alexa (a captivating performance from Sasha Desouza-Willock) rallies the A-Team (Gordon Millar, Abdul-Malik Janneh and Petra Joan-Athene) to come up with a plan that will, in the second act, take them on a thrilling adventure.
The Boy At The Back Of The Class goes to great lengths to speak to its young audience in a way that neither patronises nor belittles them. The result is a very honest and heartwarming portrayal of the story, and Nick Ahad’s adaptation is both funny and emotional.
Touko’s production is filled with playfulness, there’s always a little incongruity when adult actors are playing nine year olds, but it’s handled well here, with the ‘children’ frequently running around, getting up to mischief and hanging off the high bars of Lily Arnold’s gymnasium inspired set. Combined with Ryan Day’s lighting design, this is a visually appealing production that holds the attention of all audience age groups.
Farshid Rokey, as Ahmet, gives a stunning performance, capturing the fear, frustration and fury of a young boy forced to flee his home and settle in an alien environment. As Ahmet’s story progresses, Rokey flexes with the narrative, bringing us a cheekier and confident character. It’s gold stars all round for this impressive cast.
In the most part The Boy At The Back Of The Class is wonderfully funny, but I’m not ashamed to admit I found myself wiping away a tear more than once. This is a genuinely touching piece of theatre, and with a government hell-bent on demonising refugees, is exactly the kind of story we need to be sharing with younger audiences.
The Boy At The Back Of The Class is at Rose Theatre Kingston until 22nd February 2024 and then tours, more details can be found here