FREEDOM PROJECT

Bramall Rock Void, Leeds Playhouse

Written by Luke Barnes

Directed by Alexander Ferris

Reflecting on Freedom Project and the issues and conversations it raises I found myself thinking why do we call children seeking a new home here refugees? Why are we not seeing them for who they actually are? They are simply children requiring support, nurture and safeguarding. Why do we have such differing perspectives on refugees than on evacuees? Is it because one is seen as voluntary and the other as forced? Surely both have a commonality in the driving issue being a removal from danger? This country saw around 2 million children evacuated during WW2 in Operation Pied Piper. Children were moved out of the cities to rural Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. I imagine we wanted them to be safe, nurtured, educated and valued. Fast forward 80 years to now and refugee children arriving in Britain are met with uncertain welcomes, interrogations, pupil referral units, police searches and housed in hostels if they don’t “look” like children.¬† These are just a few of the thoughts that came from watching Freedom Project.

This production was originally scheduled for 2020 but was delayed due to Covid. Perhaps it is even more timely showing now, mere weeks after events in Afghanistan led to the heart-rending scenes at Kabul airport. Written by Luke Barnes in response to dialogue with young people seeking asylum in London and Leeds, this piece gives a vital voice to those whose lived experience is to dream of reaching  safety but discover the reality is often very different. Perhaps one of the most potent memories from this show is the warm and very personal welcome that audience members are greeted with on arrival. The actors in this two-hander welcome us into the space with friendly confidence and yet these two young men who will perform as 15 year old refugees have been refugees themselves. The dialogue could easily be their own truth and therefore their friendliness is all the more potent and meaningful. Leeds Playhouse was the first theatre in Britain to create a Theatre of Sanctuary for Refugees and people seeking asylum in 2014. Actors Mohammadreza Bazarbashi and Hossein Ahmadi have established relationships here and this has been a space to foster supportive relationships and assist budding actors to establish careers and learning opportunities.

The traverse staging works really well creating both an intimacy as the actors can get close up to engage with the audience. Having the audience facing each other accross the stage also serves to remind us of the opposing factions that lead to so many refugeed fleeing their homes. Designer Katie Scott has created a set with the feel of a disused playground or skateboard park. This allows for loads of movement in this energetic piece and allows the young actors to be children as they leapfrog, slide or just hang out chatting. The overhead fluttering  canopy of tent fragments is a stark nod to the tents at Calais and elsewhere.

Both actors exude charm and are extremely engaging. Luke Barnes ensures that the writing tells a hard hitting story but at its heart is warmth and compassion. Their journey of arriving in Britain with nothing but second hand clothing, no identification and little English is terrifying yet it also tells of the hopes they have arriving here…we came to England because it’s the best. It has the best schools, the best jobs, the most money…the best films, football and music. The tragedy enfolds as the smalls acts of human kindness these boys receive is outweighed by the callous nature of bureaucracy that asks children to relive the horrors they have escaped without any adequate safeguarding or support in place.

This is important storytelling. It would be so easy to be comfortably assured that once refugee children arrive that they are supported and placed in secure, welcoming foster homes. Freedom Project is an important reminder that children fleeing may have no documentation and therefore can fall through the cracks ending up in unsuitable hostels and denied appropriate education opportunities. Without the right support these young people can lose their optimism for the future and we therefore lose all their potential too. We risk harnessing bitterness and despair when we could be nurturing hope and positivity. We love England. Despite what it did to our home.

Leeds Playhouse 10th-18th September 2021

Leeds Playhouse Theatre of Sanctuary

Sparkplug

HOME

Written and Performed by David Judge

Directed by Hannah Tyrell-Pinder

A Box of Tricks production

Sparkplug had its World premiere on Valentines day when we celebrate idealized love. This new work by David Judge is a true celebration of the complexity of love, race and family. At times tender and compassionate, it also bravely highlights personal experience of the achingly painful racist abuse that is still so ingrained in such a multi-cultural city as Manchester. This is a story of imperfect people in difficult circumstances whose bonds of love are built on something stronger than genetics or skin colour.

This is a very personal story from writer and actor David Judge drawing on his own experience of growing up with a white Mum and Dad from Wythenshawe while being the genetic son of a black man from Moss Side. Judge vividly invokes the family life of his father Dave as a young man driving his Capri around South Manchester while listening to Rod Stewart and dreaming of a relationship with his sister Angela’s best friend Joanne. The love affair that unfolds is messy but very real. Boy gets the girl but she is pregnant with someone else’s baby. The new parents struggle like any new parents but with the added difficulty of being white parents with a brown baby in a community where even grandparents can’t stand the skin he sleeps in. Add an eventual relationship breakdown, the news that Joanne is in a lesbian relationship and that the overwhelmed parents ask their child to choose which parent he stays with. High drama indeed but also the grittiness of real people in real situations that are complex and unsanitised.

David Judge is wonderful to watch, he brings grace and delicacy to the poetry of this piece, while being equally able to make an audience palpably uncomfortable with the racism and homophobia that run through the veins of this story. He has a quicksilver ability to move between characters, each vividly drawn and instantly recognisable. The staccato delivery of words used like punches in a scene of rage, frustration and despair sit alongside the tenderness of a young man’s love for his son that is never shaken by the ignorance in his local community.

The set design by Katie Scott works really well. The bones of a car come alive to create a sense of eras in this family as the vehicle morphs from Capri to Fiat 126 to Sierra and back. The garage settings evokes the memories of family history complete with childhood toys and its soundtrack of Rod Stewart and Micheal Jackson encapsulate that home in Wythenshawe a world away from Moss Side.

Overall this is a really impressive production. I saw Judges’ performance as Pete in The Kitchen Sink at Oldham Coliseum last year and it was really memorable so it’s a pleasure to see him centre stage. As a play it flows well though would benefit from a little editing and more character clarity towards the end. Overall it is a production that sparks debate about identity and how we see ourselves and how that is impacted by those around us. What stayed with me after the the show was the strong bond between young men and their cars, how perhaps we freely choose identity through the car we drive rather than how we are often shoehorned into an identity by the skin we walk in.

HOME 13-23 February 2019

Tour details

Images by Alex Mead, Decoy Media