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The Boy at the Back of the Class - play review

In our current climate of political turbulence, it's never been more important for young people to find their voice. Using the capabilities of theatre with the best intentions, The Boy at the Back of the Class, based on a novel of the same name by Onjali Q. Raúf, teaches audiences values that span beyond the classroom walls. Told from the perspectives of nine-year-olds, this offers a unique insight that goes unmatched when exploring social understanding through the eyes of children. When an empty seat is filled by a new student, a natural wave of curiosity sweeps amongst his peers. Ahmet - played strikingly by Farshid Rokey - is a Syrian refugee. Attempting to decipher what this means, friend group Alexa (Sasha Desouza-Willock), Tom (Gordon Millar), Josie (Petra Joan-Athene) and Michael (Abdul-Malik Janneh) are determined to listen and spread kindness, despite any boundaries.

Through enthusiasm and engagement easily digestible for primary age and beyond, the production is the perfect way to introduce the opportunity to open up important conversations on difficult or uncomfortable topics that may not otherwise be had. The inquisitive little minds want to question Ahmet to understand his struggles: a contrasting approach to some of the adults' influences surrounding them. This is a crucial reflection on the impact we have and a thought-provoking process for everyone watching, to recognise how meaningful choice of language and actions really are, and consider how to educate future generations to make a better society.

Mrs Khan, the year 5 teacher, is a great role model for the children, as is Alexa's mum (both roles played by Priya Davdra), showing the difference in attitudes when presented with people to inspire and empower, rather than narrow their outlook. In contrast, Zoe Zak takes on the parts of stuck-up Clarissa, and principal Mr Irons (also being other characters), each contributing to the negative portrayal. Furthermore, Brendan the bully (Joe McNamara, alongside other roles), replicates the nastiness he has seen, which thankfully the 'A Team' combat, though it clearly fuels a range of emotions in them- anger, sadness and inquisitiveness as just a few. However, we all know kids that fit each of the stereotypes depicted, making it quite comedically representative in places, despite any exaggerations.

From the get-go, audiences learn that Alexa lost her father when she was little. She explains how to onlookers, that piece of her puzzle may define her, and while she has not fully embraced the cause of the grief, she has accepted that 'it's ok to not be ok', and this difference is something she can use to empathise with others - pretty big stuff for a little person! The reality is that children have a much deeper comprehension of the world than we give them credit for, so to have this sense of humanity depicted on stage, is precisely one of the vital messages we can all take away from the performance.

Additionally, the desire and determination to fight for justice, without seeing the issue as too overwhelming to tackle is extraordinary. Although Act 2 seems to lose its way a little, not feeling as authentic as the last, it demonstrates the shroud of helplessness that begins to shift in their direction - often an adult view of the world issues right now. Yet their passion and priority for change do not falter and is a lesson of strength that makes this show far more than just a play about some kids in a classroom.

Set to the backdrop of that PE apparatus that was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to actually use (if you know, you know, British primary school students!), this moves to alter the space creatively. A couple of 4th wall breaks assist in keeping some children actively engaged, but this was minimal and effective rather than poorly emulating panto. With ultimately heavy themes, Nick Ahad's adaptation works wonders to bring out its lighthearted side without removing the poignancy, and Monique Touko's direction makes it fast-paced and stage-worthy. It was lovely to see so many local schoolchildren getting the chance to see the show, and many of them had better theatre etiquette than adults, so nothing to fear about joining them!

The Boy at the Back of the Class is a cleverly crafted lesson for adults and children alike, teaching the harsh realities of never really knowing what others have been through, and how to better develop empathy with one another - a growing knowledge that never stops. It highlights the need for shared critical responsibility to expand this awareness of cultural literacy and acceptance of difference in every form. It's a solid reminder that we can all be a little more kinder.


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