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

Barber Shop Chronicles

ROYAL EXCHANGE THEATRE/CONTACT

Written by Inua Ellams

Directed by Bijan Sheibani

Ropes of light like tresses of a weave overlap and knot into bunches as they encircle the gallery of the Royal Exchange – the result is a kind of messy beauty that intrigues. Untangle it and it might be neat and tidy but somehow less than it was before. Such are the tales from 6 barber shops ranging from Peckham in London to Lagos, Johannesburg and Kampala. Writer Inua Ellams understands the value of the barbers’ chair as a confessional and uses it to chronicle the communality of black male global experiences. In a trip that criss- crosses timezones and cultures Ellams takes a razor sharp look at mental health stigma and the struggle with identity, racism and integration.

Barber Shop Chronicles is a riotous, colourful affair full of life and bristling with energy. There is music, singing, dancing, universally familiar bar room jokes, and there are haircuts to fit births, deaths marriages and job interviews. Every shop has the obligatory chair and mirror in which to relax and contemplate your inner world and your outer appearance. Every shop has men chatting about football and their favourite team, reminiscences about countries left behind or expectations about those to be visited. Politics and politicians are scrutinised and families are spoken of with affection or with hurt and frustration. The brilliance of this beautifully constructed drama is the little stories told and the small kindnesses demonstrated that are always present in every shop in every city.

At the heart of this work is the need for communication and the sharing of experiences. It is a basic human requirement for good mental health. Sadly statistics suggest that in Britain black men are 17 more times likely than their white equivalents to be diagnosed with a serious mental illness and young black men are six times more likely to be sectioned. At one point a young man questions how to appear as a strong black man while acknowledging the absence of his own father since he was six. Emmanuel, his barber quietly reflects on the core of this dilemma as he speaks of men living outside our countries often failed by our fathers and our politicians. In understanding the value of vulnerability when letting someone touch you with a razor Ellams approaches his characters like a barber, from “a place of delicacy, of gentleness, of absolute trust.” The result is a perfectly pitched script that speaks a language as universally valuable as the Nigerian Pidgin that cuts through any need to go through English to understand each other.

Royal Exchange Theatre and CONTACT

Co-produced by Fuel, the National Theatre and Leeds Playhouse

Royal Exchange Theatre 7th – 23rd March 2019

Images by Marc Brenner