On the day I see an adaptation of The Boy at the Back of the Class, the critically acclaimed children’s book, a post from Waterstones pops up in my social media feed: ‘Nothing can break the bond between a girl and the mediocre book she read when she was 14.’ Surely truer words have never been spoken? For me, it was Are you there God? It’s me, Margaret (although I’d argue that Judy Blume’s work is far from average).

As I sit in The Lowry‘s auditorium with my 12-year-old niece, I wonder if The Boy at the Back of the Class will become that book for her. She’s absolutely loves Onjali Q. Raúf’’s story about a young refugee and the classmates who befriend him, and has read it three times. But what would she make of a theatrical version?

It’s nerve-wracking seeing a treasured read on stage or film. Of the many successes, perhaps most notable being the Harry Potter franchise, there are numerous failures – I’m looking at you, Bonfire of the Vanities. In this instance, Nick Ahad has taken on the job of translating Raúf’’s depiction of a nine-year-old boy who has fled war-torn Syria and, during the journey, been separated from his family. 

The cast of The Boy at the Back of the Class – credit Manuel Harlan.

What follows is a nuanced and sensitively-handled tale of hardship, innocence, optimism, kindness, and the search for acceptance. It’s perhaps best summed up by Ahad himself, who when writing for Northern Soul, said: “While pessimism grows like wild flowers, hope becomes an ever rarer resource.” While no attempt is made to shy away from the brutal reality of the plight of refugees, and death is faced head-on, humour and understanding abound. 

In the hands of director Monique Touko, the adults playing children are utterly convincing with many called upon to portray a variety of characters. They are uniformly excellent, with Zoe Zak flitting between five roles and doing all of them justice. Meanwhile, Lily Arnold’s simple and versatile set, consisting primarily of a school gym, marries perfectly with the pure honesty of the play itself. There’s lots for grown-ups too, in particular blasts of The A-Team’s theme tune, my favourite TV show when I was hoovering up Judy Blume’s books back in the 1980s. 

But – and this has nothing to do with the quality of the production – the first half was ruined for me thanks to the family in the row behind. As a theatregoer for the past 35 years, I have never experienced such bad behaviour, and never before asked to change seats at the interval. Seriously, what is wrong with people? Passages of dialogue were inaudible thanks to the cacophony of scrunching, munching and talking, all blithely ignored by the parent present. The children kicked the chairs in front incessantly, but the final straw was discovering a pair of feet on my shoulders – also disregarded by the so-called responsible adult. Yes, I know to expect a degree of disruption in a performance aimed at children but this was unacceptable and displayed utter contempt for other audience members, young and old alike, hoping for an enjoyable evening at the theatre. 

But please don’t be deterred from seeing The Boy at the Back of the Class. The narrative takes a while to get going but according to the 12-year-old expert in the seat next to me, this is a four-star production.

By Helen Nugent, Editor of Northern Soul

Main image: The cast of The Boy at the Back of the Class – credit Manuel Harlan.

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The Boy at the Back of the Class is at The Lowry, Salford until March 30, 2024. For more information, click here

To read Nick Ahad’s article for Northern Soul, click here