Angela Ferguson reviews Theatre in the Quarter’s latest production – The Lost Boy, which aims to highlight issues around asylum seekers and refugees settling in communities across the UK. Cast photos by Mark Carline.
You’ve got to hand it to Chester’s Theatre in the Quarter group – they certainly don’t shy away from difficult topics when it comes to staging productions.
Past productions have examined issues such as troops heading to the front at the outbreak of World War One and the group, led by artistic director Matt Baker, has also been involved with the staging of the Chester City Passion in the city centre.
Their latest production, The Lost Boy, has attracted rave reviews and full houses, with audiences captivated by the story of a stranger arriving in a seaside town and challenging the hearts and minds of some of the residents.
The play is being staged in the calming surroundings of St Mary’s Creative Space. And it somehow seems fitting that a former church – a place associated with sanctuary – should be the place where this show starts its journey, before going out on tour further afield.
It is clear that this production has been a real labour of love for the Theatre in the Quarter team, with two years of meticulous research and preparation leading up to this point. We sincerely hope that the play achieves its aim of getting people to think and talk about this issue and about the people behind the stories that we read about and see on TV.
We were fortunate to attend a pre show talk from the show’s production team and from the charity that Theatre in the Quarter have been working alongside over the past two years – City of Sanctuary.
Trustee Dr Jeff Morgan, who was accompanied by some of the asylum seekers and refugees whose stories have inspired and feature in the play, said he was pleased to be involved with the production and he hoped it would get people talking about the issue of our changing communities and of supporting those escaping persecution, torture or warfare in their own countries.
Producer Jo McLeish told the audience that Theatre in the Quarter felt the need to challenge some of the negative media portrayals of this subject and to instead focus on the humans behind the headlines. She added that she hoped the play would go on tour after its run in Chester ends on 7 May, taking its message further afield.
Matt Baker said: “Two years ago I was working in here with lots of young people and a small element of the performance was linked to the theme of refugees. It really struck me that that was a story that a lot of people wanted to hear about.”
Writer Stephanie Dale told the audience about the research process, which including meeting refugees and asylum seekers and finding out their stories. She said: “This has been an extraordinary project to work on. There’s so much fear in the media. We wanted to try to tackle that.”
So, as Theatre in the Quarter celebrates its 12th year in the city, we took to our seats for the performance.
The sound of the sea set the scene for our first glimpse of the fictional seaside town in which the play is set, with the mournful sound of a lone cello then cutting in to prepare us for the story that was to unfold.
Alone in a crowd
Forgive what might be a mini spoiler here, but we were impressed with the clever intro scene, which sees the community chorus take on the role of refugees and asylum seekers on a boat – the cold, tired figures struggling to shelter against the elements and looking quite alone, despite being surrounded by people.
Contrast this with a sudden transformation as the chorus cast off their coats and leave the dark intense atmosphere to suddenly become a bubbly choir gathering for rehearsals in a cosy community hall.
Sombre and haunting
Matt Baker’s music weaves skilfully in and out of the performance, ranging from the sombre and haunting sound of the cello to the anthemic strains of Our Town and an upbeat song of hope at the conclusion, giving a taste of the pride, the frustrations and the triumphs over adversity of some of the townsfolk.
Meanwhile, Kate McGregor directs the cast of four professional actors, supported by a community chorus.
The endearing and sometimes stereotypically grouchy teenager Maddie (Jill McAusland) leads us into a glimpse of her life in the quiet seaside town, where she dotes on her dad Frank (Jonathan Markwood), a former fisherman, and mum Claire (Victoria Brazier), a teaching assistant and choir master. One of her favourite places to spend time is on the beach – and it is here that her life changes irrevocably one day.
She is terrified when she first catches sight of a hungry and traumatised Karem, who has arrived in the town after fleeing Syria and then enduring the further trauma of being separated from his father in Turkey.
There are many touching and simply beautiful moments such as when, for example, Maddie offers Karem some food to stave off the hunger pains. There are also some humorous moments amidst the darkness, when Maddie asks Karem if he ever had pizza in Syria and he playfully teases her that he only ate bugs and dirt.
Karem has a special gift – he has the ability to conjure up visions of fellow refugees and asylum seekers, who then tell the audience parts of their stories. These are the true experiences of refugees and asylum seekers and I have to say that I would have liked to have heard more from them, complementing the fictional story that is unfolding before us.
Writer Stephanie Dale uses her award-winning talents to breathe life into this examination of a seaside community facing change, leaving some of the residents feeling insecure and scared. The four strong cast of professional actors also bring their own strengths to the lead roles, taking us on a journey through fear, change and acceptance. And through Stephanie’s writing, we see a polarisation of views on the issue of asylum seekers and refugees coming to the UK. This is all happening against a very current back drop of the day to day worries of mum and dad attempting to hold it together for their daughter in this tale of love, friendship and loss in a post Brexit town.
A father’s wrath
I feel Maddie’s pain when she is aching to tell her mum about meeting Karem but can’t quite bring herself to. She is also facing the wrath of her father, who is understandably frustrated after losing his job as a trawler man and struggling to find work, with the only job he can find being in a fish and chip shop. Maddie has to somehow find the strength to challenge her father’s viewpoint.
I worry that she and Karem are facing this all alone, just like the refugees depicted on the boat at the beginning of the play, and that Karem may not get the help and support he so desperately needs. How will they cope with the situation they have found themselves in through no choice of their own? Will they be forced to grow up fast? I am aching for her to share her worries with her mum, whose wise words ring in my ears as she counsels her daughter to always tell the truth. And I am anxious to see Karem find the love and support he so desperately needs.
I won’t give any more away, suffice to say that the final song from Jill McAusland and Andrei Costin is a haunting and fittingly thought-provoking way to end the play.
If this production inspires waves of conversations across the city and beyond about the issue of reaching out to support asylum seekers and refugees then it will have achieved its aim. I wish every success to Theatre in the Quarter with taking this forwards.
The Lost Boy runs at St Mary’s Creative Space until 7 May. To book tickets go to www.ticketsource.co.uk/creativemarys or call 07854 550549.