The year is 1847, the place Grosse Isle, off the coast of Quebec, Canada. In the picturesque port are 40 shiploads of dead, dying and dangerously malnourished Irish folk who have fled the potato famine.
The good burghers of Grosse Isle call the boats coffin ships and are afraid of allowing the disease-ridden, not to mention "papist", peasants ashore. A special commission, bearing an uncanny resemblance to a class of secondary school pupils, must help find a solution.
The commissioners sit packed inside the dark and steamy hold of one of the ships to hear how this desperate situation has come to pass. And even among a class of emotional and disturbed teenagers from a local pupil referral unit, you can hear a pin drop.
Big Brum Theatre in Education Company's A Place of Refuge is not a comfortable, sit-back-in-your-chair-and-doze-off sort of piece. It is hard work having to confront the ignominy of the British government in its handling of the Irish potato famine. It is also hard work watching the story of the Irish people, personified by the Twomey family. And hardest of all is sitting on a commission, as the audience has been bidden, to work out a humanitarian plan and negotiate it with a local population whose self-interest and blatant prejudice overshadow its self-proclaimed "good Christianity".
Devised by the company and directed by artistic director Billy Colville, the piece is resolutely cross-curricular. "Our work isn't about enhancing the key stages," says Mr Colville. "While the play is historically factual, the emphasis isn't on the history, but on what the potato famine tells us about the rights of asylum today."
The performance takes place in an old ice house alongside a canal in Birmingham, where we meet Dr Jameson, an Irish doctor, in a rowing boat. Sadly, angrily, he throws a small shrouded figure into the water. When he disembarks to join us, it is clear that his body and spirit have all but been destroyed by this disaster.Through his diary, the story unfolds. Dr Jameson leads us, accompanied by a couple of nervous islanders ("is it safe? We don't want to catch any disease"), into the darkened ice house cum croft cum ship's hold. We hear the sound of water as the ship creaks and, intermittently, whimpers and groans from the many blanketed shapes flanking the walls.
In flashbacks and through narrative, we learn how the Twomey family and their Cork countrymen saw the writing on the wall - first the barley crop depleted, then the fungus-ridden potatoes - and how they were left no choice by their English landlord other than to leave their much-loved homes. They weren't to know what miserable conditions they would endure across the Atlantic, or that one refugee in three would die of starvation, dehydration or disease during the appalling two-month journey. When they arrived, their hardships were not over. They were prohibited from disembarking until their fates were decided by others.
This is where the commissioners, alias the school audiences, come in. Sir John Grey, chairman of the board of colonies, asks for their response to the plan of a local industrialist. It involves the refugees being crudely housed within a cordoned-off section of the derelict Montreal docklands, where they will work once the docks are redeveloped. The ensuing discussion brings to the surface the pupils' often complex thoughts and emotions concerning outsiders. While many make an impassioned plea for basic human rights, others side with Sir John.
In the two-hour follow-up workshop that Big Brum takes into participating schools, an actor plays Maria Gleeson, great great grand-daughter of the Twomey child, who has found Dr Jameson's diary. From the tracing of her family's history, the focus becomes wider - children are asked to trace their own families. Maria Gee, who plays Maria, says: "On several occasions, we've realised that none of us would be here had our great grandparents not crossed oceans and continents."
During the rest of the session, she asks the pupils to collaborate in creating three installations, human sculptures or pieces of artwork that represent the Twomeys' experiences. Ms Gee says: "Some of the children had arrived as immigrants themselves or knew children who had recently arrived from Bosnia. Others created poignant expressions of rejection and being undervalued from their own experience."
She remembers one particularly disturbing tableau of a person jeering as refugees arrived. Discussions follow each presentation.
Big Brum's A Place of Refuge is an intense, carefully constructed piece of theatre in education that enlightens as well as challenges, univeralises as well as personalises. When Year 6 and 7 pupils finish with it, there must be a sense that it is also a beginning.
A Place of Refuge will tour again in spring 1999. For details of Big Brum's forthcoming programmes, tel: 0121 382 2087