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Having fled war-torn Syria, Ahmet now sits on a chair at the back of the same class as Alexa and her friends. A refugee separated from his family and speaking only Kurdish, he’s feeling lonely, traumatised, frightened and lost...

This Children’s Theatre Partnership & Rose Theatre production is a new stage adaptation by Nick Ahad of Onjali Q Rauf’s multi-award-winning children’s novel of the same name. Told from the perspective of nine year olds, the play is aimed at children aged seven and over, but there is plenty to be enjoyed by audience members of all ages.

Young adults play the roles of the children, brilliantly portraying childhood high jinxes and behaviours whilst at the same time trying to understand the adult world they will one day join. They also transition to adult roles with ease, making this small cast seem much bigger. 

The stage setting is simple, consisting of numerous items of gym apparatus. The multifunctional equipment is played on by the children, and across the course of the play, as Ahmet’s story unfolds, it morphs into a playground, Alexa’s home, the staff-room door, a bus, the walls of Buckingham Palace and a TV screen. 
Farshid Rokey’s performance as the young Ahmet is endearingly believable and at times heartbreaking.

Despite being welcomed by most of the children, who attempt to bridge the language gap through playing football and sharing sweets, Ahmet faces his fair share of discrimination. This comes in the form of disdain and aggression from the school bully, bigoted parents passing on their prejudices (“Filthy refugee kids” says one parent at the school gate) and an ignorant older teacher.

Alexa (Sasha Desouza-Willock) narrates until Ahmet learns to speak English. At the end of act one, Ahmed addresses the audience as the only people who understand him. Because of this, we (the audience) are able to see the world through his eyes rather than as onlookers. The effect of this is to humanise the refugee experience, making it easier to see those fleeing their country and looking for a safe haven as individuals with families, friends, careers and aspirations, rather than simply as faceless participants in the ‘humanitarian crisis’ we hear about almost daily on the news.

In the second act, Ahmet tells his story of escaping the bombing in Syria, using drawings from his sketchbook that are hung up on the climbing frame. Learning that the young boy has been separated from his family, Alexa and her friends set out to reunite them. This takes the youngsters on an adventure to Buckingham Palace to enlist the help of the Queen.

Ahmet’s journey is moving and amusing, on the face of it focusing on the importance of family bonds and relationships, rather than the complicated political issue of immigration and the casualties of countries at war. 

Telling a remarkable story and exploring the power of friendship and kindness, The Boy At The Back Of The Class encourages us all to show compassion towards fellow human-beings who are in mortal danger and need our help. It also challenges the younger generation not simply to accept that injustices are a part of life, but instead to realise that they can actively work towards changing things for the better.

There were a lot of children in the audience last night, and they seemed to be completely engaged with the play. Chatting during the interval with an eleven-year-old boy known to my theatre companion, I discovered that he had read the book, considered the stage version to be an accurate adaptation, was really enjoying the play and would most definitely be recommending it to his friends.

Quite right, too... 

Topical and entertaining, absorbing and thought-provoking, imaginatively told and impressively presented, this is a truly wonderful work of theatre that’s well worth an evening of anybody’s time.  

5 Stars

The Boy At The Back Of The Class was reviewed by Sue Hull on Tuesday 19 March at Malvern Theatres, where it shows until Saturday (23 March). It then visits Wolverhampton Grand Theatre (16 - 20 April) and the Coventry Belgrade (15 - 18 May)