Review by Rosie Holmes
The Boy at the Back of the Class is an award-winning book by Onjali Q. Raúf, often studied in schools. The book, now been adapted for the stage by Nick Ahad, tells the story of Ahmet, a refugee boy from Syria. Told from the perspective of nine-year olds, this is a play aimed at children but, as I found, with plenty to be enjoyed by all ages. While the classroom of children at the centre of the action competed for gold stars from their teacher, I was intrigued to see just how many stars this show would receive from myself.
The Boy at the Back of the Class follows Alexa and her friends as they meet Ahmet, a new boy, who sits quietly at the back of the class. They learn he is a refugee, a word they have never heard before, and soon plan a mission to help reunite Ahmet with his parents. Despite most of the children being welcoming, bridging the language gap with games of football and sharing sweets, Ahmet is still met with disdain from the school bully, bigoted parents at the gate, and an ignorant older teacher.
The heart and, ultimately, the success of this story lies in the innocence of the children through whom the tale is told. It asks older members of the audiences to step back and look at the world more simply; why do we accept the injustices in the world, and why shouldn’t we act however big or small? It also manages to be accessible, educational, and engaging for the children in the audience, without ever being patronising. It rather successfully, though specifically aimed at children aged 7-12, manages to entertain and engage all members of the audience. There are plenty of giggle-inducing moments for the younger ones but plenty of knowing jokes for the adults, in more politically charged moments, as our nine-year-old Alexa’s mum asks her to trust that the people in charge know what they are doing as she refers to our government.
The cast of children are all played by adults, something I would usually find rather jarring, but in this case, with a brilliantly talented cast and dynamic direction, it works particularly well. Together as the ‘A Team’ friends Josie, Michael, Alexa and Tom all provide plenty of humour amongst the more serious messaging. Sasha Desouza-Willock is our narrator, Alexa, she is earnest and innocent, but allows her incredible perceptiveness to shine through as she switches from directly addressing the audience back to the story. Abdul-Malik Janneh is similarly charismatic, fidgeting throughout, as is common of a 9-year-old and then effortlessly switching to play adult character, the cockney Stan the Taxi Man. Gordon Millar is the over enthusiastic American Tom, positively brimming with energy, even delivering some of his lines upside down as he swung on the gymnastics apparatus.
Zoe Zak plays 9-year-old Clarissa, as well as a market trader, bigoted teacher Mr Irons and many more, showing a real flair for character acting, switching deftly between her many personas. Farshid Rokey plays Ahmet, our title character. Highly sympathetic, his sadness and fear at the beginning is all-encompassing but we slowly see him become cheekier and more confident as the story progresses.
Direction by Monique Touko is energetic and fast-paced, meaning audience members of all ages are engaged throughout. A particularly clever moment comes just before the interval in which Ahmet breaks the fourth wall to address the audience, as we become the only people in the story to understand him. This means we are no longer just passive observers but become integral to his story, we see the world through his eyes and not just those of onlookers or friends. In doing so, Touko humanises the plight of refugees, allowing us to see them as individuals with families and pets, and not just part of a crisis we hear about on the news.
Set design is by Lilly Arnold and allows for fluid and imaginative storytelling. The stage’s backdrop is the kind of PE apparatus we were only ever used to use as a treat in PE; monkey bars, ladders etc. Straight away it transported me straight back to the school hall and evoked childhood memories. Yet this backdrop is easily adaptable, making way for dreamlike sequences, and quickly transforming to the gates of Buckingham Palace and the classroom in which the children first meet Ahmet.
The Boy at the back of the Class is a bestselling novel, and in Nick Ahad’s adaptation it proves to work just as well on stage. Director Monique Touko writes in the show’s programme that she wanted to create the show she wished she saw as a child, and frankly, my wish would be that every child could see this show. Its as moving as it is funny and I am not ashamed to say I shed a few tears at the end. At a time when the world feels scarier and scarier this was a heart warming story about social action that is accessible to all. Gold stars for all!!
The Boy at the Back of the Class is playing at The Rose Theatre, Kingston until Thursday 22nd February 2024, tickets and more information can be found here - The Boy at the Back of the Class — Based on the bestselling novel | Rose Theatre, Kingston, London
Photos by Manuel Harlan