The cast of The Boy at the Back of the Class - credit Manuel Harlan

Review: The Boy at the Back of the Class

Review: The Boy at the Back of the Class

An endearing piece of theatre focussing on the plight of a young refugee


Based on Onjali Q. Raúf’s hit novel, The Boy at the Back of the Class tells the story of a nine-year-old refugee called Ahmet, who flees Syria to Britain. He is the new boy in school and while he is met with kindness by most of his classmates and teacher, not everyone shares their empathy for the stranger. There’s a bully and also adults with their prejudices and bigoted views – they are overheard calling him a ‘fifthly refugee kid’. When his classmates learn he has been separated from his parents, they come up with a plan to ask the Queen to help reunite them.

Adapted by Nick Ahad and directed by Monique Touko, it is a tough call to bring the story to life on stage. For one thing, Ahmet can’t initially speak English and so there is a long period where he doesn’t have any lines. There’s also the difficulty of the intended audience – the book is a story for children and yet it is covering a range of complex and harrowing issues, which can be exceptionally vivid on stage.

In the main, the challenges of staging the play are dealt with well. The acting is incredible across the cast with young adults playing the pupils and also doubling up as different characters.

But some of it is jarring: the childlike japes went on rather too long at the beginning and the kids are just too naïve. Some of the moments where the sheer horror of what Ahmet has been through are rushed – but then, given the main intended audience here is children (the recommended age is 7+) then I can see why this would be deliberate. The first half also comes across as rather didactic for the adults watching. A minor point but the late Queen (voiced by Dame Vanessa Redgrave) appears as a puppet-like silhouette, which dates the play a bit.

While the subject matter is serious, there are some very funny moments bringing some light-hearted relief. It is charming, poignant, and also genuinely moving. The action scenes with two of the friends navigating London to get to Buckingham Palace are just gorgeous to watch as is the quest to find a pomegranate to buy as a gift for Ahmet. Simple ideas create some brilliant moments – a football match with an invisible ball, rippling fabric manipulated to look like the sea, for example.

Overall, well done Rose Theatre and Children’s Theatre Partnership for shining the spotlight on a tough subject in a way that is accessible to a young audience, and acts as a reminder to all of the very human stories behind the headlines.

Rose Theatre: until 22 February then touring

Image: Manuel Harlan