Review: Don't Look Away, Pleasance Theatre

Since the Syrian civil war officially began in 2011, we’ve become increasingly aware of the scale of the subsequent refugee crisis. 5.6 million Syrians have been forced to flee their homes, with a further 6.2 million displaced within Syria. Statistics like this are often all over the news, and the topic has inevitably inspired writers and artists. Seeking to add some humanity to the endless facts and figures, shows like The Jungle help to consider the real lives behind the headlines. Now, NOVAE theatre brings us their take, in Grace Chapman’s Don’t Look Away.

Our protagonist is Cath (Julia Barrie). A working-class woman from Bradford, she lives a humble, solitary life. One night she meets Adnan (Robert Hannouch), a Syrian refugee. One thing leads to another, and Cath ends up inviting Adnan to stay with her while he is processed. Sounds lovely – but it’s not the selfless act that it seems to be. Cath, after a messy divorce that led her son Jamie (Brian Fletcher) to choose to live with his father miles away, is lonely. If her son were still around, would she still have opened her door to Adnan?

Following the death of his father, Jamie returns home and his entitlement soon rears its ugly head. He feels replaced, and he’s soon calling for Adnan to leave, shouting that his mother has done enough. In fact, the play could alternatively be titled Jamie Being an Entitled Little Twat For 90 Minutes. His ignorance is stifling. The university dropout laments his mother for paying Adnan’s legal fees, as she now can’t give him the £500 he needs to help pay for the production costs of his bands first EP. Getting a minimum wage part-time job is apparently also beneath him, while Adnan is not allowed to work whilst claiming asylum.

Jamie repeatedly states that he isn’t their problem, that what Adnan keeps asking of them isn’t fair. And he might be right, it isn’t fair. It shouldn’t be an individual’s responsibility to keep a refugee safe, warm and fed. One thing Don’t Look Away does well is demonstrate just how hostile the system is. We watch Adnan get given the run-around, rehearsing and revising his story so as not to get ‘caught out’ and sent home. It is made abundantly clear that the support that ought to be in place for those coming to the UK fleeing war and violence is just not there – they are instead met with scepticism, tests, and waiting. Adnan shouldn’t be in the position where he must ask a total stranger for food, a bed, a shower, and money. But he is, and I’m sure we’d all do the same in order to survive.

While I have no doubt that Don’t Look Away comes from a good, compassionate place, a few stereotypical tropes lead to a predictable narrative that does little to offer an original take. The cast give strong performances but are ultimately limited by Chapman’s well-written but simplistic script. Director Nicholas Pitt’s odd scene transitions depicting the trio circling and gliding past one-another look strange in the Pleasance Theatre’s small downstairs space, and the characters mostly feel half-baked. While Don’t Look Away claims to centre on Adnan, it’s really all about Cath and her relationship with Jamie. With deeper developed characters, and less focus on the unresolved family issues and more on Adnan and his journey, Don’t Look Away could tell an important, necessary story.

Don’t Look Away is playing the Pleasance Theatre until 18 May. For more information and tickets, visit the Pleasance Theatre website.