a team

Gordon Millar, Abdul-Malik Janneh, Sasha Desouza-Willock and Petra Joan-Athene

The Boy at the Back of the Class

Wolverhampton Grand


Theatre can entertain, it can fill you with wonder, create magic, but it also has power, it can make points, raise issues and even play politics – something understood since man first spoke on stage.

And this wonderfully simple production manages to entertain, inform and make its point quite beautifully to a target audience made up of those who will have to live with the consequences of the decisions made today by those in charge of their futures.

The subject is refugees, seen not as a political football to garner votes, but as people, specifically a nine-year-old Syrian Kurd, who speaks no English, whose sister drowned crossing the Channel, and whose parents have been left behind in France.

The story is told and seen through the eyes of nine-year-olds in a primary school with our narrator being Alexa, played convincingly by Sasha Desouza Willock. It is not easy for adults to play children, all too often it becomes adults playing at being children, but Sasha and the rest of the cast become nine-year-olds, with their enquiring minds and naïve view of the world.

The refugee is Ahmet played by Farshid Rokey who arrives in an alien world, not speaking English, unable to understand anything said to him and unable to communicate.

He is different which is perhaps why Alexa wants to be friends because she is different, her father having died when she was little. It still affects her deeply but she gives us the wonderful line that she is not OK but “I’m OK with not being OK”.

She recruits her friends to join her in finding out about Ahmet and befriending him, her friends being the school playground hierarchy of a gang, in this case the A team – cue 1980’s theme music.

Zoe Zak, Farshid Rokey, Priya Davdra and Joe McNamara

Except only the older teachers in what was essentially a school’s performance were old enough to remember Face and B A Baracas etc, so switch to Mission Impossible theme.

Abdul-Malik Janneh gave us the intelligent and clumsy Michael who was competing with the eager Petra Joan Athene as Josie for the most gold stars – hands shooting up for every class question.

Then there was Gordon Millar as Tom, with more energy than brain involved as he threw himself, literally, into anything and everything.

They were the good bit of primary school along with their kindly teacher Mrs Khan, played by Priya Davdra, who also doubles up as Alexa’s mum

The bad bit came in the shape of school bully Brendan, played with a real nasty swagger by Joe McNamara. He likes to throw his weight about and his views are just parroting those of his right wing, anti-refugee, anti-most things parents.

He got his comeuppance when he tried to intimidate Ahmet only to discover when you have faced bombs and bullets, suffered refugee camps, walked from Greece to Callais, seen your sister drown, left your parents behind and landed in a strange country not speaking the language, you are not going to be the least bit intimidated by a bolshy nine-year-old who thinks he runs the place.

The cheers were deafening when Ahmet laid into him and had to be dragged off by teachers. It seems bullies are universally disliked.

The other baddy is Mr Irons, shuffled in by Zoe Zak. Mr Irons being a rather elderly and remarkably unpopular teacher, who defended Brendan and displayed unacceptable disliking for refugees. His sacking led to another burst of wild cheering . . . and a few worried looks on the faces of some teachers.

Zoe, incidentally, also plays the remarkably boastful, rich parented Clarissa, along with a Coldstream Guard, Mrs Marbles and Mrs Grimsby . . .

Ahmet has little to say in Act 1, he arrives, sits on the empty chair at the back of the class, and slowly starts to know his classmates through football, at which he is good, which is always a start.

We reach the interval with him about to tell his story. The second act we find out how and why Ahmet is here, his journey from the horrors of war in Syria, he tells it with the aid of pictures in a book, displayed at the rear of the stage.

At the same time the Government are threatening to close the border to all refugees - ring any bells? – and the A team decide to enlist the Queen’s help to find Ahmet’s missing parents. It might be true to Onjali Q Raúf’s 2018 novel, but does tend to date the story a little as we have had a King for two years.

Not that that detracts from the story of friendship and acceptance and the simple message that refugees are people, just like us, and they are people seeking refuge brought out in this stage adaptation from Nick Ahad.

From the cheers from an audience of schoolchildren – the novel is on the Key Stage 2 curriculum – that message is understood and welcomed. Incidentally, the pupils around us were a credit to their schools, attentive, well behaved and enjoying a visit to the theatre.

Lily Arnold’s set is a masterpiece of simplicity with a frame like a stylised school gym with various signs hung and removed, with dramatic moments highlighted by Ryan Day’s lighting.

The cast of 10 manage 21 roles between them and, playing to the audience, have enough audience participation to make the children feel involved without descending into panto territory. They might have been adults but they had nine-year-olds off pat, which all helped to make the story believable while director Monique Touko keeps up a good pace to keep interest alive for an audience which can easy become restless.  The boy will be joining the class to 20-04-24.

Roger Clarke


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