On a stage piled high with junk and litter, against an ever-changing backdrop of traditional Ethiopian music the Unicorn’s talented ensemble tackle Elizabeth Laird’s popular novel in a life-affirming celebration of the ties which bind families and friends, and the commonalities which stretch across class and cultural boundaries. The Garbage King is an ambitious and kinetic drama which is certain to engage young audiences, while never flinching from the harsh realities of poverty, violence and child exploitation on the streets of Ethiopian cities.

Oladipo Agboluaje’s adaptation does a remarkable job of bringing the novel to the stage without compromising either its much-lauded honesty and accuracy or its playful sense of child-like joy and camaraderie, and the company rise to its challenges with boundless energy. Laird built on her experiences of teaching in Addis Abada, Ethiopia’s bustling and diverse capital, to tell the story of two young boys, Dani and Mamo, who emerge from starkly opposed worlds to forge a friendship on the streets of the city, and who come to realise that for all that divides their backgrounds, they are united by the struggles they face.

Ery Nzaramba’s performance as Mamo, a young boy brought up in poverty who is kidnapped from his sister’s home by a ruthless child-trafficker, is utterly engaging, and the charisma and energy he brings to the part drives much of the play’s humour. Similarly impressive is Amaka Okafor, who finds the dramatic conflicts between naivety, intelligence and petulance within Dani, the rich boy who has fled to the streets to escape his apparently unfeeling father. Their interactions and the stories which they tell to one another develop the play’s central themes of dysfunctional families, and the importance of friendship in a relentless struggle for subsistence and survival.

Performers make excellent use of the trash which litters the stage to create buildings, vehicles, and even farmyard animals, with the transformation of a hairdryer into an attention-seeking puppy, complete with electrical flex tail, drawing laughter from audience members of every age. Scene changes are woven into inventive dances and songs, and the pace is never allowed to flag. As Dani and Mamo are drawn by their predicaments into a gang of scavenging street children led by the melancholic Million (John Cockerill), the theatre fills with the smells of cooking food and decaying rubbish which ensure the audience’s immersion into their lives. Inventive staging leads to some of the show’s most poignant moments, as the spectre of Dani’s hospitalised mother floats behind the rubbish dump on a cloud of dry ice, so present in the mind of her son, but so obviously an entire world away.

The play is filled with such tragic moments, and no attempt is made to elide their painful realities. Though subjects such as prostitution and even child abuse are handled with appropriate discretion and sensitivity, the play bravely retains scenes of violence and death which, though shocking, are integral to the experiences Laird sought to express. The Unicorn should be commended for its continued commitment to full-blooded and honest children’s theatre, which respects the intelligence and sophistication of its young audiences.

There are faults with the production; the use of AV, while strong in concept, is insufficiently realised and ultimately contributes very little; accents occasionally slip increasing the difficulty of distinguishing between the dozens of characters the ensemble represent; and the live musical accompaniment provided by multi-talented Ethiopian musician Temesgen Taraken is so strong that it is unfortunate when the production falls back on recorded sound. Allowing Taraken sole ownership of its aural elements, which is hinted at in wonderful moments such as his representation of an approaching and predatory police siren, could only have increased the show’s magical appeal. These minor quibbles aside, however, The Garbage King offers so much that is heart-warming, so much that is chilling and provoking, and so much that is raucously fun that it really should not be missed

The Garbage King is playing at the Unicorn Theatre until 31st October. See the website for more information and to book.