The Boy at the Back of the Class – Review – Sheffield Lyceum Theatre

The Boy at the Back of the Class – Review – Sheffield Lyceum Theatre (2)

By Clare Jenkins, March 2024

Earlier this week, a seven-year-old girl drowned in northern France after a boat carrying asylum-seekers capsized in a canal a few miles from the English Channel. In January, a 14-year-old boy died in similar circumstances. Not for the first time, campaigners are asking the British Government – with its talk of ‘swarms’ and ‘invasions’ – to look into the treatment of unaccompanied children seeking asylum here.

So this stage version of Onjali Q. Rauf’s award-winning 2018 children’s novel remains tragically relevant. It tells the story of Ahmet, a nine-year-old Syrian boy who’s escaped bombs in his own country only to lose his sister to the sea and his parents to God knows what fate. He finds himself alone in a strange land, living with foster parents, at a school where he can’t understand his classmates (he can’t speak English, they don’t speak Kurdish).

Tormented by class bully Brendan (a sprawling, menacing Joe McNamara), he’s befriended by the self-styled ‘A team’ of four, led by Alexa (a flawless performance from Sasha Desouza-Willock, teaming gaucheness with innocence, kindness and real strength of character).

The Boy at the Back of the Class – Review – Sheffield Lyceum Theatre (1)

“Playful energy”

“It’s not bad to be different,” she says at one point, reflecting on her own fatherless state (he’d died a few years earlier). “It’s just… different.”

The quartet discover that Ahmet (Farshid Rokey) is a whizz at football, do their best to protect him, offer him fluffy Lemon Sherbets, and set about trying to reunite him with his parents. Their adventure takes them right up to the gates of Buckingham Palace, as they attempt to pass on their appeal to the Queen (voiced by Dame Vanessa Redgrave).

Directed by Monique Touko with heaps of playful energy, and aimed at 9-12-year-olds (enthusiastically making up maybe half the Tuesday night audience), the play is a heartstring-tugging celebration of friendship and bravery. Nick Ahad’s adaptation gets the balance between educational and engaging right 90pc of the time, with lots of laugh-out-loud lines. The duff notes are struck mainly by the appearance of a mortarboard-wearing, moustachioed, Bovril-drinking old racist duffer of a teacher who seems to have wandered in from the 1950s Jimmy Edwards TV comedy Whacko!

The scene where Alexa and her Mum (a kindly Priya Davdra) try to buy pomegranates for Ahmet also drags and sags. And occasionally the script is a tad heavy-handed in its moralising, as when Brendan’s smugly prejudiced parents chunter on about “sneaky, filthy refugees…we’re a soft touch over here… in France they bulldoze the camps”.

The Boy at the Back of the Class – Review – Sheffield Lyceum Theatre (3)

“Works a treat”

Finally, just to be picky, when in these days of declining print newspapers did you last hear anyone shout “Extra! Extra! Read all about it!”

Those reservations aside, the adults playing the children (Abdul-Malik Janneh, Petra Joan-Athene, Gordon Millar, Zoe Zak, together with Desouza-Willock) are all pitch-perfect. They fidget, gurn, gawkily twist this way and that, hang upside down from Lily Arnold’s deceptively simple set (a gymnasium-inspired playground-cum-schoolroom-cum everything else), dance and prance and perform somersaults. Which may sound fey, but actually works a treat – within minutes, you’ve entered their world. A world where asking questions of adults, listening to the answers, then making up your own minds, is the only way to make sense of things.

As Alexa says, “It’s not that hard to understand each other if we just listen.” Or, to quote teacher Mrs Khan (Priya Davdra again – there’s a lot of doubling up of roles) quoting Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird: “You never really understand a person until you walk around in their shoes”.

A message, perhaps, for all the anti-immigration politicians of this world?

The Boy at the Back of the Class is at Sheffield Lyceum until Saturday, then on tour until June
images: Manuel Harlan


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