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The Bone Sparrow

Zana Fraillon, adapted by S Shakthidharan
Pilot Theatre, in co-production with York Theatre Royal, Derby Theatre, Belgrade Theatre Coventry and Mercury Theatre Colchester
York Theatre Royal

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Yaamin Chowdhury and Mary Roubos in The Bone Sparrow Credit: Robert Day
Elmi Rashid Elmi, Yaamin Chowdhury, and Siobhan Athwal in The Bone Sparrow Credit: Robert Day
Yaamin Chowdhury and the cast of The Bone Sparrow Credit: Robert Day

Australian author Zana Fraillon’s 2016 children’s novel The Bone Sparrow follows two main characters: Subhi, the roughly ten-year-old child of Rohingyan refugees, and Jimmie, a girl of a similar age who lives near to the detainment centre in which Subhi and his family are kept imprisoned. Subhi has lived his whole life within these fences and under the watch of the guards (known as ‘jackets’), as he was born in detention after his mother and older sister fled to Australia from Myanmar.

It is incredible—and almost impossible—to contemplate the oppression of living one’s whole life fenced in in this way, and this adaptation’s design (by Miriam Nabarro, with lighting by Ben Cowens) does a good job of underlining the tantalising contrast between the wide-open air and the narrow limitations of the camp’s perimeter. Under the beating sun and searing blue of the skies, this isolated set of individuals ekes out an existence held in endless stasis by the state’s lack of interest in them. Out in the desert, they are easily forgotten.

Subhi (played by Yaamin Chowdhury) is befriended by Jimmie (Mary Roubos), who is mourning her deceased mother and keen to build a rapport with the boy. Meeting at the fence, she passes him unheard-of treats from the world beyond: cheese puffs, lollies and the sickly-sweet delights of hot chocolate. She also shares and facilitates Subhi’s fascination with stories, getting him to read to her from a notebook left behind by her mother, as Jimmie’s dyslexia prevents her from deciphering the text alone.

A key challenge for any adaptation from a prose original is how to accommodate the differing forms of the different media. For a work so entranced by the power of stories—primal, cultural, personal, symbolic—it is a shame that the team, led by director Esther Richardson, has not hit upon a more theatrically fitting approach. Despite some atmospheric illustration (Maha Alomari) and sound design (Arun Ghosh), the richness of an interior world such as Subhi’s is not realised. Moreover, the dramatic incidents which unfold do so somewhat stutteringly: there is little sense of a driving motivation behind the play until sometime in the second half, when protest stirs among the detainees.

Tensions in the camp mount, there is death and mourning, but somehow this does not add up to a satisfying narrative build, and the stage images, try as they might, cannot conjure the joy and release of imagination. Too often a physicalised moment is preceded by a hiccup in the flow as performers manoeuvre themselves and set items into the right position, and the movement vocabulary itself is fairly nondescript, especially considering the cultural richness and diversity on which the story draws.

The one hint of something more comes whenever Subhi reads to Jimmie, with the otherwise immovable fence along the back of the set parting in the centre and opening like the pages of the book she shares with him. This satisfying theatrical image provides the open backdrop to the lyrical—but themselves slightly anticlimactic—enactment of the stories within, performed in mime and with ensemble members wearing larger-than-life full-head masks which to me were off-putting rather than evocative.

Chowdhury, a man playing a child, is compelling in the central role, but again let down by a script which might have better introduced his world of imagination (and context such as his age) for audiences coming fresh to the story. His friendships—with Jimmie, with older refugee Eli (Elmi Rashid Elmi), and with his sister (Siobhan Athwal)—are at the centre of the drama, but mainly sketched in.

The cast as a whole is watchable and sympathetic, and all contribute to the ensemble movement in storytelling sequences. But there are too many blurred moments, too many elements that remain under-theatricalised. One vivid example is the titular bone sparrow itself, a piece of jewellery inherited by Jimmie and said to provide its wearer with protection. As a novelistic image it may be magical, but the artefact itself is tiny when brought onto a stage. The production does not do the work of imbuing it, theatrically, with its larger import.

Marked as ‘theatre for younger audiences’, this show clearly aims to appeal to the schools group demographic which is also the main audience for the book. But its lengthy run-time and somewhat meandering first half mean that its audience might find their attention wandering. Earlier Pilot work took a freer, more dynamic approach while still addressing pressing political and social issues. This is a timely reminder of our unseeing cruelty towards those forced out of their homes by war, genocide, or other atrocities, but otherwise, it seems, made mainly for those already familiar with the novel.

Reviewer: Mark Smith