Homes: A Refugee Story

Warning: This review may contain spoilers.

Homes: A Refugee Story is billed as a world premiere, and the story of teenaged Abu Bakr Al Rabeeah’s life in Iraq, Syria, and eventually Canada is the rare play that may achieve the lofty promise that phrase implies.

Bakr is, in almost every way imaginable, a normal teenager. He loves playing soccer and video games, and hanging out with his buddies, both in person and on WhatsApp. (I suspect he and my nephew would hit it off like gangbusters.) His dad is a baker. His sisters are… present, as much as sisters are to a thirteen-year-old boy. His first car bomb happens after a service at the mosque, close enough to his house that it blows out all the windows.

Homes is presented, not only figuratively, through Abu Bakr’s eyes. Nabil Traboulsi’s fine performance of the engaging script is enhanced—to my surprise—by near-immersive wall-to-wall projections of his world. I’ve often found video backdrops to be little more than a gimmick, especially on Spriet Stage productions, but in the more intimate confines of the Auburn Stage where they can play across the whole field of view they’re incredibly effective.

(That being said, the “AI” used to generate the projected material exhibits some of the technology’s current hallmarks, especially when representing humans; for example, one static scene includes what appears to be a headless hospital attendant.)

While the projections are impressive, it’s the synthesis of all its parts that makes Homes great. Environmental sound and lighting designs give life to thriving city scenes and emphasize the solitude of a boy in a country where everything—the language, the people, the temperature, even the preferred video game—is different. The minimal set and props function equally well in representing scenes including a gymnasium soccer pitch, a living room, and a bakery. Under director Haysam Kadri, it’s as easy to believe Traboulsi playing kids half the actor’s as he is playing Abu Bakr’s father. And all of that work would be for naught without Kadri and Winnie Yeung’s sensitive adaptation of Al Rabeeah’s Governor General’s Literary Award-nominated memoir.

Is this a London story, told by Londoners to the world? Not at all. But it’s a story about the world, being told for the first time to Londoners, and it can and should proudly make its way back into the world from here.