This hopeful, heartwarming adaptation of Onjali Raúf’s award-winning novel about a refugee’s first, frightened steps into a British classroom is a reminder that behind the frothing anti-immigrant fervour of our age are traumatised people, many of them children. If political rhetoric has all but dehumanised them, this returns us to our humanity.

Adapted by Nick Ahad, it features the initially silent Ahmet (Farshid Rokey), a Syrian boy only able to speak Kurdish. Some classmates, namely Brendan the Bully (Joe McNamara), reflect the hostility of the greater world outside the school gates but Alexa (Sasha Desouza-Willock) and her gang, Josie (Petra Joan-Athene), Michael (Abdul-Malik Janneh) and Tom (Gordon Millar), first welcome him and then set about trying to find his lost parents. That endeavour takes them intrepidly to Buckingham Palace to canvas the Queen (the book was written before King Charles’s succession and Ahad chooses to keep to the original).

School gang … from left, Sasha Desouza-Willock, Petra Joan-Athene, Gordon Millar and Abdul-Malik Janneh. Photograph: Manuel Harlan

Under the direction of Monique Touko, there are sparks of lovely theatricality: the seas across which Ahmet travels captured with a billowing sheet at the start, and a game of football wonderfully evoked in movement and sound with an invisible ball (Ahmet turns out to be an ace player). It is disappointing we do not have more of such theatricality, though there are breakout spurts of music, dance and accompanying dry ice, but these are repeated. And the drama seems a little too reported on the whole – we are told what happened, rather than shown it – hampering the dramatic value and pacing, which occasionally dips at over two hours.

Alexa narrates until Ahmet gains a voice at the end of the first act. His backstory of immense trauma and loss comes to the fore in the second half, although again it is reported rather than enacted.

Lily Arnold’s set design is economical in its fluidity, the school gymnasium changing into Alexa’s home and then to Buckingham Palace with a few quick swivels, although the large stage sometimes appears too empty.

Adults play the children, as in the West End adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird – and that story is briefly mentioned by teacher Mrs Khan (Priya Davdra), bearing its parallels to Raúf’s. Performances gather strength, particularly that of Desouza-Willock as the fiercely questioning Alexa and Rokey as a plaintive Ahmet. But they also veer towards the overbright or emphatically childlike.

There are slightly too laborious moral lessons and educational moments, but alongside come deft explorations of what it means for a child to lose a parent – both for Ahmet and for Alexa – as well as war, displacement and the ways in which adults can pass down their prejudice. “Filthy refugee kids,” says one parent at the school gates.

The adults seem like the bigger bullies here, ultimately, but the energising message is that a younger generation might learn to be more compassionate and open-hearted towards thosesuch as Ahmet who are in dire need of help.

At the Rose theatre, Kingston, until 22 February; then touring the UK until 8 June.


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