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Published on Sunday, 17 July 2011

4 stars

Underground Venues - Pauper's Pit
15, 17-18 Jul, 3:15pm-4:20pm; 19 Jul, 10:30pm-11:35pm
Reviewed by Richard Stamp

The first thirty seconds of Fugee throw a lot in your face: a thumping soundtrack, a bloodied knife, and a dying man.  Kojo, an under-age asylum seeker from the Ivory Coast, is the one who wielded the blade… and the play tells the story of his recent life, as we learn just what brought him to this country and these depths.

Fugee (it’s slang for “refugee”) isn’t an original script – it was written by professional playwright Abi Morgan in 2008.  But it’s cleverly chosen by this young group, both playing to their strengths and working round their unavoidable constraints.  In an especially neat device, the text explicitly distinguishes the actors from the characters they represent, eliminating the incongruity of having a diverse group of global refugees played by a largely Caucasian cast.

Freed of the requirement to mimic accents or appearances, the ten actors instead create subtly compelling characters, with diversity expressed through words and demeanour rather than the colour of their skin.  Chris Williams is restrained and effective as Kojo, a man – no, a boy – with many horrors in his past.  It would be easy to over-act this role, but Williams achieves a mix of pain and detachment which perfectly typifies the cycle of violence he is caught in.

As an unashamedly campaigning play, Fugee eloquently highlights the cruelty of a system which relies on a fact that can never be proved.  If Kojo’s under 16, he’s entitled to refuge and help, but if he’s an adult he’s out on his own.  As Kojo meets more and more officials who claim to want to help him, he uncovers the terrible truth: that they really just want to wash their hands.  The script contains no solutions, but it’s still profoundly affecting – especially when we learn just why Kojo fled the Ivory Coast, a scene with is especially sensitively handled by such a young crew.

There are a few criticisms to make.  The many scene changes are well-rehearsed, but pull down the mood and could, with work, be even slicker.  The direction reaches a little too readily for trite symbolism – even the rain falls perfectly on cue – and the music in the background occasionally felt more of a distraction than an enhancement.  Niggles aside though, it’s easy to recommend this disturbing but important play, which does full justice to Morgan’s intricate script.  “I’m safe because I’m in the United Kingdom,” Kojo says; oh, if only that were true.

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