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★★★★★ (5 stars)
There is no doubt that the best children’s theatre is not created by those who frame their creation as ‘Children’s Theatre’, but rather by those who have faith in, and respect for, their younger audiences and refuse to talk down to them. Brolly Productions and the producers of Half Moon Theatre have managed to do just that with their current, exceptional production of Guantanamo Boy. Following the story of Khalid, a 15 year old from Rochdale, this harrowing piece, based on the book by Anna Perera brings into stark relief the human rights abuse committed in the aftermath of 9/11.
Khalid, the likeable, awkward teenage protagonist, played with exceptional skill and deftness by Antonio Khela, is unwillingly taken to Pakistan to visit his Karachi aunties. One night, his mother, Bhawha Bhawsar, whose performance as a proud parent with unfailing faith in her son is a particular highlight, catches Khalid leaving the house. Promising to be back soon, Khalid’s search for an Internet café, in order to speak to his online gaming friends, soon turns to disaster. Caught up in a demonstration, Khalid is captured and kidnapped; convinced that he is a dangerous criminal, the US intelligence subject him to a gruelling interrogation. Thrown into prison, and eventually shipped to Guantanamo, Khalid faces questioning and torture from those who are already convinced of his guilt. After two years behind bars, having become withdrawn and permanently scarred by his horrific ordeal, he is released, but returns home to friends who cannot understand his experiences.
This is a play that asks a lot of its audience, but engagement is highly rewarded. The injustice of Khalid’s treatment by his captors frequently smacks you right between the eyes; and one becomes painfully aware of how hopeless life for inmates at Guantanamo was, and still is. Roisin O’Loughlin gives a wonderfully hateful performance as the US Intelligence Agent, channelling something of Nurse Rachett with her promise that as soon as Khalid gives her the names of his Al-Qaeda associates, she will let him go. Edward Nkom, playing one of Khalid’s guards, tries to persuade his prisoner to comply; when Khalid questions the guards’ methods, he is met with the response: “You people acted up so we acted up”. Khalid’s simple, but horribly apposite, retort – “What “people?”” – reminds us all too well of the power of fear and the mentality of ‘act now, ask questions later’. As Bush’s post-9/11 “if you are not with us you are against us” speech echoes around the auditorium, Khalid is taken away to be water boarded.
Rachana Jadhav and the design team deserve exceptional mention for their work on this production. Screens on two sides of the audience showed footage of Khalid’s computer games, the flight from London to Karachi, the crowds at the demonstration, and 9/11. Metal mesh, which was pulled across the audience to create the prisons, also imprisoned sections of the audience, whilst the rising and falling soundscape gave us further insight into Khalid’s tortured mind.
Half Moon had the foresight to stage a Q&A at the end of every performance, giving their young audience a vital space to process and digest this, at times, very difficult play.
An extraordinary scene in Guantanamo is cleverly depicted by writer and director Dominic Hingorani as a hallucination in Khalid’s mind, as he repeats the mantra: “There is no they. There is no you. There is only us.” This, for me, was the heart of the play, and its central political message is that violence is violence and only begets more violence. Led by a very strong cast, with sensitive direction, and exceptionally clever design, this production delivers on all levels. Adults and young people alike will find much to capture the heart and the mind.
Thought-provoking, demanding of openness and curiosity, and leaving you wanting to know more – this is what great theatre is made of.