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Lost in migration: The English Lesson

Bittersweet play reminds us of the harsh reality faced by those fleeing persecution and attempting to build a new life

11 September, 2020 — By Lucy Popescu

Ben Turner

TAMSIN Oglesby’s timely drama, The English Lesson, tackles many of the emotive issues surrounding asylum seekers today –  why they want to come to the UK rather than France (they know the language and/or have relatives here); their paranoia about being deported without warning (a result of the UK’s hostile environment); and their fear of not being believed (often because of poor translation or miscommunication).

Farooq (Ben Turner), a Kurdish asylum seeker, is learning English with Johnny (Danny Sapani). He has been in the UK for six months and is waiting for his judicial review.

Farooq had to leave his country in a hurry and arrived without documentation, but his case is sound. He is desperate to improve his English, hoping it will strengthen his claim but, as Johnny points out, he is not being tested on his language skills.

Divided into three parts – Gratitude, Debt and Home – we follow Farooq’s friendship with Johnny and his initiation, as a refugee, into English life.

In the second part, Farooq is lodging with Johnny and his actress wife Lola (Kate O’Flynn). He’s now allowed to work, but earns less than everyone else in his office.

Two years later, Johnny and Lola are married and Farooq is a successful businessman who harbours a secret about the couple. Farooq is concerned because there has been a regime change in his country and the Home Office want to interview him. People who have lived in the UK for years are being deported despite the risk to their lives.

He asks Johnny for a character reference, claiming that he is gay, in order to avoid being returned. Johnny prefers not to lie, believing it’s enough that Farooq is on a list of political dissidents.

Oglesby explores cultural difference with humour, but her bittersweet play also reminds us of the harsh reality faced by those fleeing persecution and attempting to build a new life.

The English Lesson is about truth and lies: the stories we tell ourselves and the stories people hear, the masks we might adopt, the bravado we sometimes fake, the truth that might get us killed and the lie that could save a life.

  • BBC Radio 4, 3pm, Saturday.

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