Abi Morgan’s Fugee is the perfect play for the Southwark Playhouse Young Company. The characters constantly tell us that they don’t exist, and that they’re being played by actors who are telling their stories. The play creates a safe space, sound in its blatant theatricality, through which to explore the difficult and gritty experiences of underage refugees to this country. It means that the company can investigate these stories and their significance without the constraints of a necessarily realistic production. Fugee is a good piece of theatre not in spite of the Young Company’s demographic, but because of it.
The safe space created theatrically by the play mimics that in which a large deal of the play is set: a refuge for unaccompanied minors coming over to the UK. Small threads of several characters’ stories feed into the narrative, but this is firmly the story of Kojo, a fourteen-year-old ex-child soldier fleeing from a past filled with almost unthinkable tragedy. It’s heavy stuff, but the company deals maturely with the content of the play – which is good, because the stories told are ones we don’t hear enough of.
Gender and race-blind casting means the central role of Kojo is placed by the captivating Nadia Elgaddal, whose strong performance fits in perfectly with the play’s idea of aiming for truth, not realism. This may sound disparaging – far from it, as Elgaddal makes Kojo and his story accessible and endearing to us as the audience. It’s difficult to pick out members of the company, as they work so well together as an ensemble, but there is great support from Ben Kind as Ara, as well as strong characterisation from those members of the cast that multi-role so frequently. The cast feels like a tight-knit unit, which is half the battle in producing a piece this admirable.
The Southwark Playhouse’s youth director David Workman’s aesthetically strong production is understated enough to act as a catalyst for the performers to thrive, but bold enough to tackle Morgan’s difficult script. The strange world of London as it appears to the minors is solidly created, with subtle sound design helping to tie everything together professionally.
Admittedly, some of the issues with the production are down to the inexperience of the company. Projection in particular comes a cropper, which is unfortunate because there are great moments in the play that a large portion of the audience just don’t get the benefit of. But that is in some ways to be expected: it’s being on this stage in front of an engaged audience made up of more than just friends and family that helps improve these sorts of issues and hitches. That being said, improvement in clarity of communication is an area that the company need to address.
The night I saw Fugee was the last of its short run, which is a shame, as it really is a thoughtful, imaginative piece of theatre. Sure, there are things that need to be polished; the energy of the piece drops considerably in the middle, and I couldn’t help wishing that the company had tackled certain episodes with several rapid scene changes with as much energy as they did the opening scene. But we mustn’t forget the slick, sympathetic production the Young Company present, and the strong performances at its centre. I would hope that the piece has a life beyond its short run last week – Fugee is a piece that’s well on its way to something remarkable.
Fugee played at the Southwark Playhouse until 10 April. For more information, see the Southwark Playhouse website.