An uneasy look at the past
the boy in the striped pyjamas

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

Malvern Theatres

*****

THIS Children’s Touring Partnership production, playing to a full house in Malvern at the start of its tour, is a compelling adaptation of John Boyne’s fable which gave a different but poignant perspective on the horrors of the Holocaust during the Second World War.

Adopting the perspective of two nine year olds has a powerful ironic impact: they have a very innocent and naïve understanding of what is happening around them and the adults in their world are keen to keep them ‘in the dark’ or ‘innocent of the deeds’, so their almost charming questions and comments carry a sinister irony.

An innocent adventure becomes a horrific nightmare as they behave as little boys naturally behave and we are disturbed by the tragedy that results from the failure to act with integrity on the part of Herr Commandant.

Bruno’s parents begin with a move from Berlin to the country because father has been promoted. He has been given the massive responsibility for the conctwo boysentration camp in Poland from which he hopes to screen and protect his children. He feels his conduct is both patriotic and an essential fulfilment of his duty, despite the twinges of conscience prompted by his wife and most acutely by his mother.

The suppression of conscience happens very easily as individuals justify their behaviour by very reasonable statements: ‘Life is not fair, Bruno!’ says mother. ’It’s not up to us to change things!’ ‘It’s important to ‘know when to keep your mouth shut and do as you are told!’

Bruno has no understanding of what is happening behind the fence beyond their back garden and when he meets Shmuel, an emaciated victim of his own age beyond the barbed wire fence, he just treats him as playmate.

Despite the tutor, Herr Liszt, telling Bruno and his sister that the people behind the fence are not people, the boys are not naturally racist at all. ‘Are we Jews?’ asks Bruno innocently at one point.

However the friendship develops in ways that ironically and poignantly highlight the horrors of the camps without portraying any real violence directly on stage.

The show makes a strong impact: the haunting music that starts the show and is reprised at various moments sets a strong atmosphere along with the typing of the headlines of the narrative. The stage design is ingenious and effective with the initial plainness adapting to provide the setting for family meals, a party, a revolving scene for the barbed wire fence and the meetings of the two lads.

There was a huge amount of script to memorise for the two youngest actors, Jabez Cheeseman (Bruno) and Colby Mulgrew (Shmuel), performing last night I believe. They were spot on and the play hinges significantly on their performances. Although a few words or speeches were not completely audible, their enunciation and projection was in general excellent and they endeared themselves to the audience. They were key to the impact of the show.

Around the two lads Phil Cheadle played the part of Father with a brilliantly moderated and balanced performance, avoiding caricature but illustrating how easily men and women who were not fundamentally evil allowed themselves can be caught up in something ghastly and devastating.

The tension of a situation that clearly strained nerves to near breaking point was well controlled by the women portrayed by Rosie Wyatt (Maria), Marianne Oldham (Mother) and Helen Anderson (Grandmother).

This ‘fable’ does not portray a literal scenario that would have happened quite as described in the novel but it is strong in its ability to enable the audience to suspend disbelief and engage with the young lads at its core. These people were typical of many Germans in that awful period in recent history. The play closes with the ironic conclusion that such evil could surely not be repeated in the ‘modern’ world. An excellent and morally wholesome experience for all! To 14-03-15

Tim Crow

10-03-15

Midland tour dates: Tue 9 - Sat 13 Jun Wolverhampton Grand Theatre 01902 42 92 12; Tue 16 – Sat 20 Jun Coventry Belgrade 024 7655 3055 

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