mother, father and Gretel

 Marianne Oldham as Mother, Phil Cheadle as Father, the Commandant of Auschwitz, and Eleanor Thorn as Gretel

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

Wolverhampton Grand

*****

JOHN Boyne’s 2006 novel has its detractors, many holocaust survivors, but the fact it is on the National Curriculum and this stage adaptation brings in youngsters and school parties does at least mean its message of man’s inhumanity to man is not going unheard.

The story is simple, Bruno is nine and living a comfortable, middle-class life, or as comfortable as possible, in 1943, wartime Berlin, as the son of a senior Wehrmacht officer along with his sister Gretel, mother and the family maid, Maria.

A visit by Hitler, The Führer, or, as Bruno mistakenly calls him, The Fury, sees Bruno’s father promoted to Commandant of Out-With, Bruno’s interpretation of Auschwitz, and the entire family move to Poland and one of the most infamous camps in history where, amid the horror of the holocaust a more personal tragedy is set in train.

Bruno defies instructions that the camp is out of bounds to go exploring where he finds Shmuel, a young boy the same age, down to the same birthday, making them somehow twins of fate. Shmuel is on the other side of the wire, the boy in the striped pyjamas.

The father, played with Teutonic bearing by Phil Cheadle, is a committed Nazi, to him Out-with is merely a place to facilitate Hitler’s final solution, with the beings inside the wire not even human.

It is a view not shared by his mother, Bruno's grandmother, a former theatrical star, played with the commanding presence of a faded diva, and a lovely Dietrich singing voice, by Helen Anderson. She hates hates Hitler, her son’s new job and what Hitler and Nazism have turned her son into with a vengeance.Bruno and Shmuel

She stays in Berlin and with her outspoken views we are never sure if her subsequent death is due to natural or Nazi causes.

Eleanor Thorn’s Gretel is 14, an obedient teenager who does not question what is happening and becomes infatuated with a young 19-year-old lieutenant at Auschwitz, Kotler, blond, Aryan and brainwashed into the Nazi cause, played by Ed Brody.

Finlay Wright-Stephens as Bruno and his friend behind the wire Shmuel played by Tom Hibberd

Kotler is to discover the harsh realities of the Third Reich when it is discovered his father fled to Switzerland in 1938 and he finds himself transferred from carrying out genocide in relative safety to being cannon fodder on the front line. The sins of the father are hereditary it seems.

Marianne Oldham takes the mother on a journey from an efficient housewife ensuring the smooth running of a large household in Berlin to a drunk who cannot face the reality of her husband’s job and what he has become when she is sober. Whether she is also having an affair with Kotler is implied but never revealed.

Maria, played by Rosie Wyatt, is the maid and also a useful device showing both the cruelty of the Commandant in the way he treats anyone he regards as socially inferior, and also his kindness to her dying mother and to her in giving her a job.

Hovering in the background is Pavel, played with suitable submissiveness by Robert Styles, an inmate of Auschwitz who survives by being used as a servant for the Commandant in the barracks. He used to be a doctor but now peels vegetables and serves at table. In a theatrical irony Styles, who plays the condemned Jewish doctor, also plays the walk on part of Adolf Hitler.

And that brings us to Bruno and Shmuel, the main characters, with three teams of youngsters with Finlay Wright-Stephens playing Bruno and Tom Hibberd as Shmuel in Wolverhampton.

Both are nine, the same age as their characters, and it is a remarkable performance for a pair so young, not only in the huge number of lines they had to learn, Bruno is on stage most of the time, but also in making their characters believable and convincing.

Bruno is like many young boys, an inquiring mind, a need to explore, a thirst for adventure, easily forgetting being told not to go near the camp when it seems so interesting, in a less serious moment he is almost a German Just William.

He has that annoying habit of small boys to question everything and be into everything so it was only a matter of time before he made his way to the wire. Naively he envies Shmuel because he has so many boys of his own age to play with in the camp while he has no other child around but Gretel

Hibbard’s Shmuel has a matter of fact, clear voice as he talks about the camp almost as if it has become normality.

Neither he nor Bruno seem to have grasped the reality of what is going on no matter which side of the wire you are on with Shmuel looking for his father who has gone missing and Bruno offering to help him as we head for the inevitable, numbing climax.

Director Joe Murphy avoids allowing the story to become mawkish, indeed part Bruno and Shmuelof the horror comes from making the running of a concentration camp merely a job  no different from, say, managing a baked bean factory.

Murphy keeps up a good pace utilizing a clever set from designer Robert Innes Hopkins using a large revolve as the stage.

Bruno gives food to Shmuel when the Jewish boy is brought into the house to polish glasses, then lies and betrays him to save himself

It allows nice touches such as when Bruno and Gretel climb a chest of drawers to look from a window to see the camp at the rear of the stage, the revolve brings them around to the front so that, with clever lighting from Malcolm Rippeth, they stare out at the audience. We become the Jews in the camp.

We also get Nazi soldiers in greatcoats and coal scuttle helmets as stage hands among the cast of 13 once we arrive at Out-with, along with the barbed wire fence dividing the stage into us and them, which helps set the scene beautifully, while the use of a huge rear video screen projecting blurry images of 1940s Berlin or monochrome images of Auschwitz, along with typed introductions for each scene is inspired.

The book, and this adaptation by Angus Jackson, tells audiences it is a fable - technically it isn’t, it’s a parable -  and has sold in excess of five million copies despite criticism from both historians and Jewish organisations, including Holocaust survivors.

The main rebukes range from the implausibility of Bruno’s naivety about Jews and Hitler, particularly as he is the son of a committed Nazi officer and presumably taught in a pro-Nazi Berlin school.

There are doubts Hitler, and his mistress, would visit a relatively low ranking officer to offer him an equally low level job or that an officer would take a young family with him to such a place, while, citing a lack of basic research, there is the claim that there were no nine year old boys in Auschwitz as those too young, too old or too infirm to work were eliminated upon arrival.

But the story is not a documentary, it is a parable, making a point, and remember it is written for children. Bruno and Shmuel are fictional figures, equal in so many ways other than race, who represent the two sides of the horrific Nazi equation.

This faithful stage adaptation does at least mean the point is being made, even if historical accuracy is vague and reality is watered down. It at least serves as an introduction for children, preparing their emotions; the facts and the true horror can come later.

The Children’s Touring Partnership has brought us Goodnight Mr Tom and Swallows and Amazons in the past and this is another superbly presented and directed production, moving and with a gut wrenching ending. To 13-06-15

Roger Clarke

09-06-15 

The Boy in The Striped Pyjamas opens at Coventry Belgrade on Tuesday 16 June running to Saturday 20 June. Book here

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