The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 5 May)

The boundary between adult, that nebulous territory often designated as young adult and late childhood is a hazy one nowadays. The Children’s Touring Partnership is building an enviable record in productions which achieve cross-over.

Angus Jackson’s stage adaptation John Boyne’s book The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas positions itself as a fable. Behind it is the stark reality of the Holocaust with all its horrors of forced deportation and slave labour in concentration camps leading to the inevitability of the gas chamber and furnace.

That this is both a story rooted in a particular time and places, and that it is also a timeless/placeless one (as all the best fables often are) is emphasised by Robert Innes Hopkins’ set design. – a circular wooden revolve backed by a brick wall upon which a sequence of words and images is projected to indicate where we are and when. There is minimal furniture.

If you don’t know the story already, it concerns a nine-year old boy Bruno (Cameron Duncan) and the friendship he strikes up with Shmuel (Sam Peterson) when his explorations lead him to a barbed wire fence enclosing a compound. Bruno, his teenage sister Gretel (Eleanor Thorn) and their parents (Marianne Oldham and Phil Cheadle) have moved reluctantly from the comfort of Berlin to the extermination camp in Poland of which the father has been appointed commandant.

Good as the older actors are, it is Duncan and Peterson who earn the audience’s ovation. Rightly so. Bruno comes over as a somewhat naïve boy, as yet unable to distinguish when lying to wriggle out of an uncomfortable situation (and so damaging another person) can have dire consequences. Shmuel share some of his innocence, but he has also acquired knowledge derived from bitter experiences.

On the sidelines of Bruno’s life are his grandmother (Helen Anderson) whose career as a chanteuse has not led to a love for the Third Reich, let alone its murderous philosophies, and the family maid Maria (Rosie Wyatt), sharp-tongued and far-seeing. Another thoroughly thee-dimensional portrait is that of Pavel – former doctor, now a servant – by Robert Styles.

Joe Murphy’s production balances realism where necessary with symbolism and mime where that suits the action better. The movement director is Lizzi Gee who contrives a wonderful sequence in which Bruno climbs out of his bedroom window and revels in what seems to be a virgin forest, full of mysterious shapes and sounds.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas runs at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 9 May and plays at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge between 23 and 27 May.

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