They say you can’t understand someone’s story until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. It’s nearly 3,500 miles from Sudan to the UK, and in Journey of a Refugee, we’re invited to travel with Zain (Mohamed Sarrar) as he covers that distance, experiencing with him first-hand its challenges and emotional trials. Although ostensibly aimed at a family audience (ages 8+), this is a thoroughly entertaining, sensitive handling of a difficult theme that encourages everyone to reconsider what it is to be a refugee.
In the foyer at Stanley Arts, Kassi (Kassichama Okene-Jameson), Daphne (Vivian Triantafyllopoulou), and Ali (Adi Detemo) explain they are a welcoming party – there’s a banner and everything – expecting some refugees who’ve just come to the UK. We turn to greet the arrivals but see just one solitary figure walking wearily up the long hallway. This is Zain. Instantly, this image encapsulates the isolation of his long, arduous journey even before he speaks of it; he is simultaneously an everyman and an individual, sharing a tale of fear, confusion, bureaucracy and, above all, humanity.
It’s a promenade piece, and we’re gently moved into a huge, dramatically lit hall, stepping into Zain’s world. Found hiding in a container, he explains he was beaten so badly by Sudanese police that he had to escape the country, fearing for his life. He and his companions re-enact the journey with us, helping us understand not just what happened, but how it felt to be there.
Director Sue Buckmaster’s succinct, visual storytelling is compelling and engaging. Stunning images give an almost epic quality to Zain’s quest for safety. Vibrant, sensory, emotional landscapes are conjured around us, and ideas of hazard, confusion and humanity are woven into a meticulously considered selection of materials – from plastic to cages to lifejackets, made substantial in Simon Daw’s impeccable, innovative design. These combine with Mark Doubleday’s arresting lighting to give the story exhilarating depth. Through Frank Moon’s wonderful compositions, the bewitching cultures of the Middle East are diffused throughout this innocuous arts centre in Croydon, inextricably blending the two worlds.
Naomi Oppenheim’s puppet of Zain’s mother give an achingly beautiful reminder of home, before the scale shifts, and a tiny truck drives across dustsheets simulating harsh desert dunes. We turn and catch our breath, seeing a huge, moving ocean before us where refugees in a boat are represented as just so many life jackets – a sad reflection on how their dehumanisation is all too commonplace.
The cast expertly transform cages of captivity into moving trains, whirling at speed and encapsulating the urgent chaos of Zain’s escape. Jose Agudo’s choreography is phenomenal, filling the vast space with motion and creating visceral atmospheres of effort and confusion.
At the detention centre, difficult bureaucracy requires the whole audience to step into Zain’s shoes: his identification problem could just as easily be ours. Juliet Stevenson’s alarming Big Brother announcements bully us through the confusing, frustrating and frightening process, where we are tangibly at risk of detention. But playfulness is cleverly built in to combat the absurd system, as we find our forms are wrong, or we have the incorrect coloured pen. It doesn’t really work, and together, we denounce it.
Come the end, there’s a clearer understanding that a refugee is not an object or a number on a form, but a person. We are invited to share our common humanity through music and dancing which is glorious fun, uplifting and positive.
This show is excellent for children, who will delight in the adventure, vibrant music and exciting interaction. But it also offers an important, compelling lesson to all of society on the need to be actively compassionate in taking new perspectives on the refugee situation.
Produced by Theatre-Rites with Agudo Dance Company
Director: Sue Buckmaster
Set and Costume Designer: Simon Daw
Composer: Frank Moon
Jose Agudo: Assistant Director and Movement Director
Lighting Designer: Mark Doubleday
Puppet Maker: Naomi Oppenheim
Journey of a Refugee runs at Stanley Arts Centre until 18 February as part of London Borough of Culture in Croydon.
Further information and bookings can be found here.