By: Sam Tucker, TRP Reviewer
This extremely powerful play follows the journey of husband and wife Nuri and Afra as they make the perilous journey to England to escape the war in Syria. Based on the 2019 bestselling novel of the same name by Christy Lefteri, the story is raw, devastatingly moving and still heartbreakingly current. Although a work of fiction, the story is inspired by Christy’s experiences while volunteering in a refugee centre in Athens. Playwrights Nesrin Alrefaai and Matthew Spangler, who co-adapted the book for the stage, point out that “at no time in human history have there been more refugees and forcibly displaced people than there are today”. Both share “the belief in the potential of theatre to creative positive social change” and this is must-see theatre.
The play not only charts routes taken by Nuri and Afra, but also the people who help or hinder them along the way. One ‘highlight’ is the assessment interviewer Nuri endures when he reaches England. Her questions are often meaningless and accusatory and yet Nuri answers them calmly and considerately. It really demonstrates the balance of power and quickly helps audiences show compassion for anyone having to cope with layers of admin on top of layers of life changing upheaval. The narrative is not linear, but instead reflects memories, flashbacks and numerous appointments in various countries. Within minutes we are introduced to the couple in England, so the story is less about whether they make it geographically, but more about whether they can cope with the traumas along the way.
The set (designed by Ruby Pugh) is both fixed and flexible – fixed in that the staging doesn’t move, but projections play across the set and floor enabling many different scenes to be set. These are wonderfully poignant and at times frighteningly dramatic. One such moment is a boat crossing and the entire audience seem swept up in the rolling waves swelling up treacherously from the set. This extraordinarily powerful moment is minutes before the interval and certainly sent us into the foyer deep in thought. Pugh writes that she “felt the play is set inside Nuri’s mind, everything we see or hear is part of Nuri working through his story in order to make sense of it.” This is highlighted by the fluidity of the projections. Also, the fact that one chair, one bed and some rocks actually represent numerous beds, chairs and rocks across the world in this story, which really adds to the idea of their journey being long, vast and confusing.
A theme of connection and disconnection helps us to see the very human element to this story. The couple travel together, but yet drift further apart as they contend with their own suffering. If, like me, you haven’t read the book yet, I won’t spoil any of the plot points, but suffice to say the quality of acting across the entire cast helps to make this feel like a very real story about very real people. Special mention should go to Afred Clay who brilliantly plays a well-rounded Nuri and allows us to see him as husband, carer, victim, father and cousin and connect with the character and story through his highs and lows. Roxy Faridany (Afra) and Joseph Long (Mustafa) are also excellent in immersing us in a loving family who suffer unimaginable pain both together and apart.
For me, Elham Mahyoub as Mohammed/Sami was a delight, with her scenes being either the most poignant or much needed light-relief. We laugh with her child-like characters, but also marvel at the bravery of the innocence of childish questions and viewpoints. Of course, we are also then affected more deeply at the thought of children in these situations, but this is the power of the writing and acting of this piece.
Nesrin Alrefaai and Matthew Spangler write, “As playwrights, we keenly feel the honour, privilege, and responsibility that goes with bringing this story to the stage.” I think this important story will help people to connect beyond headlines and couldn’t be better presented. Visually stunning, beautifully acted and with a haunting soundtrack, this play will definitely make audiences sit up and listen compassionately.