Review: Don’t Look Away at Pleasance Theatre

Immigration is rarely out of the news. While refugees drown, politicians pontificate over border controls, and far-right movements become ever bolder, at home and abroad. The stories tend to focus on our response to immigration, politically and socially, but rarely do we hear from those making the journey. The humanity of refugees is so often ignored. A new play demands otherwise.

Don’t Look Away at Pleasance Theatre. Photo courtesy of Ryan Cowan (2019).

Don’t Look Away at Pleasance Theatre. Photo courtesy of Ryan Cowan (2019).

Don’t Look Away is an admirable but flawed work that aims to humanise asylum seekers. The play tells the story of Adnan (Robert Hannouch), a Syrian refugee who takes up residence with Cath (Julia Barrie), a cleaner from Bradford, whose already estranged relationship with her son Jamie (Brian Fletcher) is complicated further by the young man’s arrival.

By focusing on personal relationships, rather than political questions, Don’t Look Away avoids heavy-handed messages for affecting family drama. There is a wry humour throughout, particularly from the endearingly cheeky Adnan, which proves refreshing for a play that could, in the wrong hands, come across as patronising or proselytising on the suffering of others.

Don’t Look Away at Pleasance Theatre. Photo courtesy of Ryan Cowan (2019).

Don’t Look Away at Pleasance Theatre. Photo courtesy of Ryan Cowan (2019).

Robert Hannouch is well-cast as Adnan, whose portrayal of a young man forced to grow up fast is both touching and convincing. I was also impressed with Julia Barrie’s performance as Cath, who manages to convey all the complexities of a mother trying to do the right thing by two sons, one natural, and one whom she has effectively adopted. Brian Fletcher could at times seem a little stiff as Jamie, but this could be due to his notably unsympathetic character.

The main issues I have with Don’t Look Away relate to writing and characterisation. While Grace Chapman is smart to avoid broad political discussions in the play, the sense of realism is often spoiled with dialogue that can be anything but subtle. Disagreements between characters are not so much teased as they are bluntly laid bare, which sometimes took me out of the drama, and diminished the scenes’ emotional impact.

Don’t Look Away at Pleasance Theatre. Photo courtesy of Ryan Cowan (2019).

Don’t Look Away at Pleasance Theatre. Photo courtesy of Ryan Cowan (2019).

As hinted above, while I enjoyed the characters of Adnan and Cath, I thought Jamie could have been developed further. Jamie is hostile to both Cath and Adnan, the former for neglecting his father and him, and the latter for taking up his old room. These grievances felt under-explored, and as such only seemed to relate to the character’s entitlement, which made him difficult to relate to and rather two-dimensional as a person.

Despite these problems, Don’t Look Away deserves a watch. The play serves as a worthy reminder of our collective responsibility towards the victims of state violence, and a call to look past the headlines to the human lives caught up in the struggle.

Don’t Look Away is showing at Pleasance Theatre until Saturday 18 May.

Tickets are available from the website.