The Beekeeper of Aleppo – Nottingham Playhouse

Reviewer: James Garrington

Writer: Christy Lefteri

Adaptors: Nesrin Alrefaai and Matthew Spangler

Director: Miranda Cromwell

Nuri is a beekeeper. Not that he was always happy with that – the bees used to scare him. Now though, heunderstands them – as he says, “they are like a society in complete harmony with itself. Not like people at all”. He lives happily with his wife Afra in Aleppo, a beautiful place until war strikes. All they care about is destroyed and they decide to leave, to head for the UK. How are they to get there though?

As a piece of theatre, the concept works quite well, creating an entertaining enough evening, but some of its themes work much better than others. Good use is made of Ruby Pugh’s simple set, a house with mounds of sand and rubble, among which you see scattered some odd pieces of domestic furniture. An armchair sits half buried and askew, and a bedstead is perched on top of a pile of debris. It’s augmented by some excellent video designed by Ravi Deepres, shown against the walls of the house to help the impression of different locations on what would otherwise be a very static and somewhat cramped stage.

The journey across Syria towards their intended destination is full of the usual encounters – aggressive, and manipulating people smugglers, the perilous sea crossing on an unsuitable raft, violent criminal gangs and the uncertainty about who you can and can’t trust. The problem is, although the piece contains some dramatic moments overall it feels a bit superficial and sanitised, compared to what we see and read about similar journeys. The sea-crossing sequence works well, making good use of a mattress and some great video to create an image of a stormy sea – helped by some well-synchronised movement from the cast. The concept of working to pay for the passage is a bit lightweight though, no slave labour in squalid conditions to pay off a debt that never seems to decrease for example, and the final journey to the UK seems so simple as to create an anti-climax.

Where the piece does work well and approaches an area that’s less often covered, is the impact of trauma and loss on both relationships and the mental and physical health of the victims. Afra has been blinded by an explosion, and although Nuri takes care of her she feels that he no longer cares about her. They no longer touch, he struggles to share a bed with her.

Meanwhile, Nuri is suffering his own challenges, and his mind jumps around with incidents from the past and present, both real and imagined, coming at him in a jumble. Depicting this is not without its challenges either, with the result that the play is somewhat episodic and bitty. Knowing that they arrive safely in the UK – which we discover right at the start – removes some of the dramatic tension of their journey too.

We do get a good impression of the some of the other challenges too – aggressive border officials, a Home Office that can’t provide the right paperwork, and well-meaning but failing NGOs in the camps along the way.

The cast works hard to bring it all together with excellent performances from the central pair of Alfred Clay and Roxy Faridany as Nuri and Afra, and Joseph Long as a gentle Mustafa doubling as a scene-stealing Moroccan man who believes that being British is essentially knowing how to drink tea and say “geezer” as often as possible.

A good but flawed attempt to portray the challenges and raise awareness of the deeper issues of something that’s never far from our TV screens. For an audience with little knowledge of the problems faced by refugees, this would be a good but somewhat sanitised and superficial introduction.

Runs Until 25 February 2023 and on tour

The Reviews Hub Score

Relevant but bitty and episodic

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The Reviews Hub - Central

The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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