Don’t Look Away (Pleasance Theatre, Islington)

Don’t Look Away (Pleasance Theatre, Islington, until May 18th)

Asylum seekers and their plight is an issue regularly seen on the news, but increasingly the topic is being explored on stage as more and more people ask the question, “What can be done?”

The impact on the refugees is portrayed on a large scale in plays such as The Jungle, where desperate individuals are seen as a group facing uncertain futures in a way that shocks, informs and calls to action.

Grace Chapman’s gripping new play, Don’t Look Away, adds a new and authentic perspective to the problem by making the story more personal and intense. The inspiration came from the writer’s own family, which has hosted migrants, and the case of a former soldier arrested for trying to smuggle a child refugee in his van from Calais.

Here, a caring cleaner in Bradford meets an asylum seeker recently arrived in the UK and offers him a friendly helping hand as he struggles through the demands of the Home Office to allow his stay to be permanent. The extent to which she is prepared to go in that assistance, and at what cost to her and her son, forms the dramatic backbone of the piece as well as delivering a moral dilemma which is likely to stay in the minds of the audience long after the play ends. The question expands from “What can be done?” to “What can be done – and what must be sacrificed?”

Good-hearted divorcee Cath (played with enormous sympathy and strength by Julia Barrie) is the woman who just cannot turn aside from the genuine needs of Adnan, the 18-year-old Syrian refugee she encounters after he has made a 4,500-mile journey in a quest for freedom.

She is just one person but her compassionate nature means she is unable to ignore the hostile environment which greets the young man, finally offering him a room in her house as he tries to combat an unwelcoming system.

The situation is made more complicated when her son, also 18, returns home from university ambitiously hoping to follow his own more artistic career path rather than study – and he wants his room back. The relationship between all three and the parallel story of the two 18-year-olds is engaging, with both young men expecting to be the focus for Cath’s attention.

Robert Hannouch is an instantly likeable Adnan, caring us much for a little sister in Calais as his own welfare. He puts across the frustration of someone who has come to the UK with huge hopes and dreams which are quickly blown away by red tape and reality. Hannouch sparkles as the simple soul forced into making and more demands on his host. There’s a wonderful scene in which he teaches Cath the pure joy of dance from his home country, achieved even in the midst of anguish. He never ceases to demand our sympathy, even when we are shocked by his selfishness.

Brian Fletcher is excellent as Cath’s son, Jamie, giving a convincing performance as the son somewhat shunted to the side just when he needs his mum the most. It is he who has the more down to earth approach, describing his mother’s efforts as, “like throwing a punch at a tidal wave.” It is easy to see how Cath’s house is a microcosm of British society (and perhaps especially the media) in its attitudes and intolerance.

Presented as part of the Pleasance’s flagship new writing season, Don’t Look Away is a production from NOVAE theatre company, of which the writer is co-artistic director.

Chapman’s research into and experience of the difficulties facing asylum seekers means the play always comes across as highly credible and this helps pack a punch. The story of one person dealing with challenges and upsets in a taxing process is experienced by thousands of others in the real world. The play deals well with the idea that even one person helping can be crucial in this global problem – yet that help is also likely to be batted into insignificance.

Director Nicholas Pitt ensures that the tension is palpable, with the theatre’s Downstairs space meaning the action, the arguments and the painful decisions are very much in the face of the audience. There is no alternative but to take note of the story that unfolds, to witness both the despair and optimism of the young refugee and recognise how much more needs to be done to offer support.

The ultimate question is, of course, should the help come from charitable individuals who can only offer so much, or from organisations or governments who have the necessary power and authority. Let us hope the play has the opportunity to engage with larger audiences elsewhere so these questions can be explored more deeply – perhaps even on tour or in schools.

There isn’t an easy answer when there is evidently such a vacuum of real support, but at least moving and timely plays such as this open up the opportunity for vital debate.

David Guest

Image: Ryan Cowan

A version of this review originally appeared on The Reviews Hub