There is at the moment, quite rightly, no shortage of plays about the ongoing refugee crisis. Artists are dramatising every stage of this tragic arc, from the perils of escaping a war zone, the inhumanity of the Calais “Jungle”, and the plight of those who succeed in making it to the UK in the hope of gaining asylum. Don’t Look Away is an example of the latter, telling the story of one such individual and the impact his arrival has on a British family.
In Bradford, cleaner Cath (Julia Barrie) is sweeping up after the charity group meeting at her local Community Centre, when 18-year-old Syrian Adnan (Robert Hannouch) arrives and asserts his claim to political asylum. Initially wary of this strange young man – though his English is much more advanced than his first few well-rehearsed lines seem to indicate – Cath soon warms to him and offers him temporary refuge in her home. But the room she installs him in previously belonged to her son Jamie (Brian Fletcher), also 18, who chose to live with his father when his parents split up. Jamie’s unexpected return sets him and Adnan at odds in a competition for Cath’s loyalty and affection.
This is the dramatic crux of the play: Cath’s struggle to support her surrogate son in the face of her biological one’s needs. Grace Chapman’s confident script succeeds in delivering plenty of dramatic conflict through a collection of satisfyingly complex characters and relationships. None of them is above reproach, and the play rings with honesty and compassion. The cast are all focussed and engaging, there are welcome bursts of comedy along the way, whilst designer James Donnelly has constructed a convincing domestic set within the big metallic box that is the Pleasance’s latest performance space.
Less effective are the intervals of abstract movement that punctuate scenes. As the actors circle each other with silent scowls and almost-but-don’t-quite touch, one wonders what is this adding to the story? I’m a fan of physical theatre when it brings something new and thrilling to a play, but set alongside the effective realism of the rest of the piece, these interludes feel like a needless distraction.
There’s a disappointing loss of plausibility at the end of the play as Cath sets out on a heroic mission. But there does still remain much to admire in this tightly focussed look at the interface between everyday British life and the extraordinary challenges faced by so many of our displaced brothers and sisters.
Writer: Grace Chapman
Director: Nicholas Pitt
Producer: Ellie Simpson for NOVAE Theatre
Box Office: 020 7609 1800
Playing until: 18 May 2019