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The Boy at the Back of the Class | The Lowry

A well written family show caters for both children and adults in the family, and The Boy at the Back of the Class does just this, providing a story and visuals that are engaging enough for youngsters while still impressing adult audiences with its creative staging and emotional subtext. While its tendency to pander to its lower demographic may withdraw from the profound impact the show could have had, this is a loveable play nonetheless.

Based on the beloved children's book by Onjali Q. RaufThe Boy at the Back of the Class is the family theatre we need right now: it's urgent, it's sincere, and most importantly, it trusts its younger audience to engage with this compelling story in a way that few productions aimed at younger audiences attempt. Being a tale of refugee acceptance and sympathy, the show by nature of its content holds plenty of weight and thankfully chooses to - age appropriately - discuss these issues with the respect and gravitas they deserve, choosing to be a piece of reflection and entertainment in equal measures, rather than squander all potential on cheap childish nonsense.

That's not to say that the show is void of joy and levity; quite contrarily, Monique Touko's direction ensures that the piece is playful, maintaining the sensibilities of the young at heart, yet this liveliness is employed with taste - tender moments allow the audience to appreciate the true heart behind this story. Unfortunately, some misguided musical moments, jokes, characterisations and a slightly tiresome second act hurt the show's balance of the sincere and jovial, but despite this, The Boy at the Back of the Class is a show with plenty of heart, and strong intentions that cannot be faulted.

As an adaptation for the stage, The Boy at the Back of the Class is a tremendous triumph, creating a visually intriguing, inviting and engaging world that appeals to the eye of children and adults alike. Lily Arnold's set design is simplistic yet creative, choosing to heighten the primary school perspective through a versatile climbing frame structure, transforming into buses, shops and the gates of Buckingham Palace when paired with the surprisingly dynamic lighting by Ryan Day. For a show conceived with children in mind, the design team refuse to hold back, achieving some impressive stagecraft that remains energetic to the younger eye - exactly how it ought to be done.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the show's use of music which sadly lowers the tone from youthful yet sensitive, to juvenile and immature; the use of pop songs feels shoehorned and an abrupt shift from the otherwise understated soundscape. Equally moments of 'Mission Impossible' pastiche (accompanied obnoxiously by the respective theme) reduces the play. While it can be quaint to admire the cast's ability to convincingly portray the frantic imagination of a child, the production could learn to trust its material a step further - children don't require gimmicks to engage in storytelling.

While discussing the cast, they ought to be praised in bringing so much life to the show. Rather than using children to depict the primary school students of the show - a choice that would be a potentially irritating endeavour - a cast of young adults multirole as both the 9 year old students and the various adults in their life. Abdul-Malik Janneh as Michael and Sasha Desouza-Willock particularly shine in their loveable characterisations as lead characters, capturing the youthful innocence of childhood without crossing the line of pantomimist imitation. Farshid Rokey's portrayal of the titular character Ahmet is also fantastic, capturing his fear, rage and compassion for others in a nuanced way.

Unfortunately the same cannot be said for all the acting choices however, in a play with serious undertones, whiny voices fail to be the most compelling speaker to amplify them. More egregious to the overall impact of the show however, is the decision to reduce many of the adult characters to one-dimensional sources of comedy. While these help lighten the tone and bring warmth to the piece, much of the play revolves around the younger generations standing up to the older, and thus the impact is lost when their struggle is against an easily mocked depiction.

The Boy at the Back of the Class is a step in the right direction for family theatre, showing boldness in its endeavour to unashamedly present younger audiences with hard hitting, uncompromising and important discourse. In the play's most touching scene, we're retold a refugee's journey through the eyes of a child; it's a remarkably profound moment that even adult centric shows often fail to achieve, and while unfortunately the entire show may not live up to these aspirational heights, it's still very respectable.


AD | gifted tickets in return for an honest review | photography by Manuel Harlan


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