The QT

Wednesday 22 May 2024

Learning lessons from The Boy at the Back of the Class

Schoolchildren from all over the region will take their seats at Newcastle Theatre Royal to see Nick Ahad’s adaptation of Onjali Q. Rauf’s much-loved book
Farshid Rokey in The Boy at the Back of the Class. Credit: Manuel Harlan

A project between Newcastle Theatre Royal and nine schools in the West End of the city will see almost 500 children enjoying a captivating — and soberingly topical — play this week.

The stage adaptation of Onjali Q. Rauf’s award-winning children’s book, The Boy at the Back of the Class is on stage at the city centre venue until Saturday.

The story is centred around Ahmet, a young refugee from Syria — who sits at the back of the class after arriving alone in the UK on a small boat, not knowing the whereabouts of his family.

After his arrival, a group of his nine-year-old classmates hatch the ‘greatest plan’ to help him find his parents and end up going on a journey filled with sensitivity, curiousness and straight forward kindness — resulting in them all making a big impact on each other’s lives — and on a pair of Buckingham Palace bearskin-wearing guards.

Sasha Desouza-Willock, Petra Joan-Athene, Gordon Millar and Abdul-Malik Janneh in The Boy at the Back of the Class. Credit: Manuel Harlan

Of course there are bullies and bigots too, reflecting the harsh realities of the world outside the school gates — and inside them in some cases — but let’s focus on the positive.

Schoolchildren who have been delving into the themes and exploring the characters in the inspiring story — in lessons and via workshops led by the Theatre Royal’s new artist in residence, writer and theatre maker, Laura Lindow — are getting to see Nick Ahad’s stage adaptation of the book.

And judging by the crowd from Canning Street Primary School yesterday (May 1), they’re absolutely loving it.

Teacher, Vanessa Cunningham, who brought a group of Year Four pupils to see the production, said: “We read the book at Christmas and then we’ve been working with Laura to really dig into the feelings of the characters. It’s been so amazing to see these children really getting involved and unpicking the characters’ behaviour.

Year Four children from Canning Street Primary School at Newcastle Theatre Royal with teacher, Vanessa Cunningham

“The children loved the book but to come and see it brought to life and seeing those characters as actual people, is wonderful. There’s only so much you can do in school but to see it come to life like this after all the work they’ve done with Laura is fantastic.”

The year-long project, which began earlier in 2024, sees the Theatre’s creative engagement team working in partnership with the West End Schools’ Trust (WEST), a charitable company of nine schools in deprived areas of Newcastle.

Pupils from Bridgewater, Broadwood, Canning Street, Moorside, Hawthorn, St John’s, St Paul’s C of E, Wingrove  and Lemington Riverside primary schools have been enjoying the weekly sessions designed to instil confidence, nurture creativity and foster a sense of belonging in a place which is new to many of the students taking part in the project.

Children have been enjoying weekly workshops with the Theatre Royal’s new artists in residence Laura Lindow

One of the Trust’s nine schools has students who speak more than 30 languages between them.

As well as hoping to foster a love of theatre — and remove the perception barriers that ‘this big imposing building is not for me’ — Kim Hoffman, head of creative engagement at the Theatre Royal, says there are key areas of development which the project is focused on.

“We hope that this time next year, the children who we’ve been working with will have seen improvements in oracy, literacy and confidence. 

“Because this is a long-term project — and next year we’ll start it all again with a new focus production — it means we can follow the work through and also gather feedback and real data about the difference it is making to the children.

“So rather than parachute in and then leave, we are building relationships which is really important and hugely valuable.”

Primary school children have been attending an after school theatre club as part of the project.

In all, groups of children from 76 schools in the region will see The Boy at the Back of the Class during its Tyneside stay, rivalling the number of school groups who line up to see the incredibly popular pantomime every Christmas.

The partnership with WEST is part of a broader project, which also sees after school theatre clubs held at the Theatre on Monday afternoons.

Meanwhile writer and director Gary Kitching has started working with adult community groups in the West End too, gathering stories and holding workshops.

“All of the work will feed into Laura’s development of a large scale piece of theatre scheduled for 2026. We’re hoping to engage with around 500 people throughout the process,” said Kim.

The Boy at the Back of the Class is at Newcastle Theatre Royal until Saturday (May 4). Visit the website or call the box office on 0191 232 7010 for tickets.


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