Tarn Rodgers Johns speaks to Kate Duffy, founder of the theatre company behind Dear Home Office – a new play exploring the experiences of young migrant men in the UK.
Seeing photographs of refugees arriving from Calais is the closest most of us will get to the unaccompanied minors starting their lives in the UK. For Kate Duffy, though, welcoming them to the country is part of her job. She helps them settle in London, from taking them shopping in Primark, to preparing them for visits to the Home Office.
As well as her day job as wellbeing and support manager at a refugee housing project, last year Kate also began collaborating with eight refugee boys on Dear Home Office, a play dramatising the experiences of unaccompanied minors in the UK. The play was performed at the 2016 Edinburgh Fringe Festival and has since had massive success in London, with another show booked for 27th November.
Theatre has always been a big part of Kate’s life. When she was a teenager she acted in plays written by her mum, screenwriter Dawn Harrison, and she also has a degree in Drama, Applied Theatre and Education. “Applied theatre is my bag” she says, “I don’t do Shakespeare, I do drama with community groups as a tool for social change”. The idea for Dear Home Office came to Kate one day at the suggestion of one of the residents, “one day he approached me and said ‘I think I’m quite funny and I have an interesting story to tell’”.
Once the seed had been planted Kate approached her mum and together with teacher Rosanna Jahangard they set up Phosphoros Theatre Company. They started out running drama workshops in the living room at the housing project in Harrow and eventually relocated rehearsals to Kate’s family home in Derby, where they practised in the village hall and the boys saw mountains — some of them for the first time in years.
The play tells the story of Tariq, a composite character played by all eight boys. Throughout the play the narrative is interjected by Kate, playing herself, reading a letter written to The Home Office to advocate for Tariq’s asylum claim.
Kate explains that whereas refugee narratives are often presented as a set of facts, “what you don’t get is the texture — this is how my mum told me that I was leaving, this is how I felt”, things which she wanted to include in the play. Despite the emotive subject matter, she insists that the focus be on the refugees as teenagers, “I felt like the joy, and the normal teenage stuff — like being obsessed with Instagram and Huarache trainers and Snapchatting all the time — all of those things are often just missed out”. Why is it important to show this side of the story? “I guess we’re trying to go against the expectation of what refugee stories are, of what refugee theatre might be”.
Dear Home Office caught the eye of critics at the Edinburgh Fringe festival, the cast were interviewed on BBC Edinburgh and the play was nominated for an Amnesty Freedom of Expression Award. “Every day something would happen and we’d be like OK this is the peak of our Edinburgh experience, it can’t get better than this, then it did”. Whilst in Scotland they went to a Scottish Cèilidh “one of the guys, Faheem, was talking to the band and suddenly I heard this booming Afghan music”. The band announced that this young boy from Afghanistan was going to perform some traditional Afghan dancing and soon everyone in the room was dancing Attan.
“The bittersweet thing is that they have this amazing experience at the Fringe festival but the next day they’re back at The Home Office, or at their twelve hour shift at a chicken shop”. She stresses that despite the enthusiastic reaction to the play, the cast’s stories are still ongoing. “I think sometimes people are like ‘oh you’re fine now, you’ve got your status’ and it’s like no, there’s no happy ending and it’s not a quick thing — it drags on”.
I ask Kate what Phosphoros have planned for the future and she says that the boys are keen to continue telling refugee stories through theatre, “I think that when they were doing the interviews and press stuff they realised that they have power in their voices”. According to the Facebook page they also have a ‘top secret’ project in the making which she doesn’t want to reveal just yet.
Whatever it may be, it’s clear that the stories, faces and voices of young refugee men will remain centre stage. When the narrative around male refugees can too often depict them as dangerous and predatory, this change in perspective is only too welcome.
Dear Home Office will be performed again on 27th November as part of the Southbank Centre’s Being a Man festival.