REVIEW: Journey of a Refugee, Theatre-Rites (Stanley Arts Centre)

Asylum seekers in London almost always find themselves in Croydon; the location of the Home Office asylum intake unit, and one of just two London boroughs (along with Southwark) offering initial accommodation to displaced people. Croydon is also London’s Borough of Culture 2023, making it the perfect place to stage a re-imagining of Theatre-Rites’ acclaimed promenade production The Welcoming Party. Created in partnership with Agudo Dance Company, with a cast including refugees from Sudan and Ethiopia, Journey of a Refugee offers family audiences (ages 8+) a powerful but playful insight into what it means to be a refugee.

The performance begins in the bar area of Stanley Arts Centre, where we gather to greet a group of refugees who are due to arrive in Croydon. Our welcoming party is led by Ali (Adi Detemo), Kassi (Kassichani Okene-Jameson) and Daphne (Vivan Triantafyllopoulou), who are keen to give our new arrivals a warm Croydon welcome. They’ve made a banner and everything. But nobody arrives – except Zain (Mohamed Sarrar) – he’s not exactly new, but he does have his own story to tell.

Vivan Triantafyllopoulou and Mohamed Sarrar in Journey of a Refugee at Stanley Arts. Set design by Simon Daw, puppet design by Naomi Oppenheim. Image credit: Ali Wright.

So we follow Zain into an abandoned theatre, where he takes us on a trip back in time, recalling his own perilous journey from Sudan to the UK. We feel Zain’s pain as he says goodbye to his mother (a beautiful piece of puppetry design from Naomi Oppenheim), and watch as he travels across land and sea, experiencing the horrors of the “jungle” in Calais, before being bundled into a lorry in a bid for a new future.

It’s poignant and thought-provoking, using a wonderful mixture of narration, puppetry and contemporary dance to create a very dynamic performance. Simon Daw’s set design and Mark Doubleday’s lighting design are wonderfully evocative, giving us a real sense that we are in a disused theatre, which then comes to life as the performers take us on a journey across the world. The scenes depicting sea crossings are especially effective, transforming materials from the abandoned space into waves and lifejackets.

Journey of a Refugee at Stanley Arts. Set design by Simon Daw, lighting design by Mark Doubleday and puppet design by Naomi Oppenheim. Image credit: Ali Wright.

It’s a promenade piece, with clever direction from Sue Buckmaster. With each scene change, we are gently re-positioned to watch the action unfold, but for the first half we still very much feel like outsiders. Although purporting to be immersive, there are always physical barriers between the audience and the performers. Despite the beautiful storytelling, it still feels like we are outsiders looking into someone else’s world, instead of experiencing it for ourselves.

With no safe routes, it’s harder for today’s refugees to follow in Zain’s footsteps, and even if they do make it to our shores, they must then encounter the challenges of a heartless, bureaucratic system. And at this stage, the physical and metaphorical barriers are removed, with the audience becoming truly part of the action as they join the cast to be processed by immigration. There is no more “them and us”. We are all people, walking in the same shoes. It’s brilliantly done, giving a real sense of how frustrating the asylum application process is, in a way that is accessible to young audiences. It’s confusing and frustrating, but just on the right side of scary, and ultimately ends in playful rebellion and a joyful celebration.

Journey of a Refugee is a beautiful piece of work which sensitively explores ideas about asylum in an accessible way for youngsters, while providing important talking points for audiences of all ages. It continues at Stanley Arts Centre during February half term and is well worth a journey to Croydon.

Journey of a Refugee plays at Stanley Arts Centre from 3 to 18 February 2024. We received a complimentary press ticket to the performance on Sunday 4 February.