Review: The Boy at the Back of the Class, the Lyceum, Sheffield

The world may be at war, extremism rising, the small boats a big issue… but there’s hope for the future, if the empathetic young audience at The Lyceum theatre this week is anything to go by.
Gordon Millar, Abdul-Malik Janneh, Sasha Desouza-Willock and Petra Joan-Athene. Photos: Manuel HarlanGordon Millar, Abdul-Malik Janneh, Sasha Desouza-Willock and Petra Joan-Athene. Photos: Manuel Harlan
Gordon Millar, Abdul-Malik Janneh, Sasha Desouza-Willock and Petra Joan-Athene. Photos: Manuel Harlan

Children on school trips, behaving impeccably from primaries across the city, cheered, clapped, laughed and cried, all rooting for The Boy at the Back of the Class, making its debut in Sheffield as part of its world premiere UK tour.

This heart-rending, heart-warming, powerful new play, at the Lyceum until Saturday, is adapted from author Onjali Q Rauf’s award-winning novel – a best-selling book often studied in schools in Years 4 and 5 since its publication in 2018.

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It tells the story, through the eyes of a child, of nine-year-old Kurdish Syrian ‘refugee kid’ Ahmet, and the gauche classmates who team together – with a little help from the Queen – to try to find his parents.

Joe McNamara and Zoe ZakJoe McNamara and Zoe Zak
Joe McNamara and Zoe Zak

The book tells a deceptively simple tale that uses childlike understanding to take on some enormously grown-up themes: the refugee crisis, migrant drownings, immigration, racism, bigotry, and bullying.

And the play, cleverly adapted from page to stage by writer and theatre critic Nick Ahad, continues in the same way. The dialogue has the authenticity of young children’s speech – sometimes muddled, sometimes nonsense, sometimes cutting straight to the glaringly obvious solutions supposedly wiser adults fail to see.

The story is helped along by just a handful of basic props – a rippling blue canvas for the dangerous sea which washed up Ahmet to his new life in Britain, costumes straight from a child’s dressing-up box for the bearskin hats of the Queen’s Coldstream guards and the mortar board and gown of evil teacher Mr Irons.

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The play is set primarily in a school, where the pared-back set – a frame of wooden gym hall climbing bars – doubles not just as the classroom and playground but as a living room, supermarket, shop, bus stop, Tube, London taxi and Buckingham Palace.

The cast of The Boy at the Back of the ClassThe cast of The Boy at the Back of the Class
The cast of The Boy at the Back of the Class

The issue for any play featuring children is always the awkwardness of adult actors taking on junior roles, especially when dressed in school uniforms.

Farshid Rokey, who plays Ahmet, is a seasoned actor with more than 60 theatre, TV, film and radio credits under his belt, and Sasha Desouza-Willock, who plays his best friend, turns 25 this summer. But it’s not long before you forget the actors aren’t actually children, and Rokey especially is utterly convincing.

Despite its weighty subject matter, the show still manages to be fun and funny, though Nick Ahad himself has admitted the book was ‘a nightmare to adapt for the stage’.

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He was faced with a main character who initially doesn’t speak (and, when he does, can speak only Kurdish) and a nameless narrator who, in the book, is so anonymous we don’t know their gender until almost at the very end.

The cast of The Boy at the Back of the ClassThe cast of The Boy at the Back of the Class
The cast of The Boy at the Back of the Class

But it turns out those difficulties give the play some of its most impactful moments.

When, at the end of the first half, Ahmet has barely spoken at all – and suddenly realises he can speak, in English, to the children in the audience, and they can hear and understand the thoughts he’s had trapped inside for so long, the emotion on opening night among the young theatre-goers was palpable.

“This is my story,” he announced with choking defiance, as the lights slammed down, the stage went black, and 500 rapt schoolchildren gasped in surprise and suspense – and learned a lesson in humanity only the power of live theatre can teach.

  • The Boy at the Back of the Class at the Lyceum, Sheffield, until Saturday, March 9
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