The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

John Boyne, adapted by Angus Jackson
The Children's Touring Partnership
Chichester Festival Theatre

Cameron Duncan as Bruno Credit: Richard Gibbons
Colby Mulgrew as Shmuel Credit: Manuel Harlan
Packing to leave home with Helen Anderson as Grandmother and Rosie Wyatt as Maria Credit: Manuel Harlan

This is Bruno’s story as seen and told by him, although it is maid Maria who narrates the beginning.

Being forced by his father’s job to move from their spacious and comfortable home in Berlin to a place he calls Out With does not please Bruno at all and he says so vehemently, especially when the new home is far from comfortable and there is no one to play with. What is especially strange to him is the tall fence, stretching as far as the eye can see, and over there are lots of people, and children. Why can he not play with them?

The production is beautifully staged, with a minimum of embellishment and props, and each scene is preceded with its title appearing as if being typed on the backdrop.

Time often slips backwards to a period leading up to the present and there are thoughts on why the father, this formerly kind and considerate man, then became so ruthless in his ambition to further his career. In the original home, in a scene entitled "The Party", his mother berates him for swaggering about in his Nazi uniform while ignoring its significance.

Back in Out With, there is a particularly clever and effective portrayal of Bruno exploring along the fence, leading to the main focus of the story, the meeting of two boys, Bruno (Cameron Duncan) on one side with Jewish Shmuel on the other and instantly becoming friends.

Bruno, in his innocence, does not understand the cruelty meted out to the Jews in the camp and wonders why Shmuel doesn’t put on a jumper as he is so cold, and doesn’t he have something in his wardrobe to change from the striped pyjamas that they all wear?

I couldn’t always make out what the boys were saying, particularly Bruno as he seemed to be rushing his lines a little. Perhaps press night nerves were a bit too much for a ten-year-old, but it didn’t really matter as otherwise he, and nine-year-old Colby Mulgrew as Jewish Shmuel, are such excellent child actors that with mannerisms, expressions and movement the meaning is perfectly clear.

Performances across the board are exceptional. Talent, dedication and expert direction (Joe Murphy) have seen to that, with particular mention for Eleanor Thorn as Gretel, a perfect teenage mixture of scorn for her younger brother and awkward flirtatiousness with the handsome but violently cruel Kotler (Ed Brody). Even the mother was beginning to succumb to his charms being bored and disgusted with her new life and disheartened by the ambitions of her husband.

The play grabs the attention from the beginning and holds it right to the "Final Adventure" when Bruno leaves his clothes behind and changes into the striped pyjamas to blend in with the others, before sliding under the fence to join his friend. The Final Adventure is totally final as the iron doors swing shut with a resounding and frightening clang.

At the curtain call, as the cast leave the stage, all that is left is the pile of clothes.

A final word from Maria (Rosie Wyatt) “All this happened a long time ago and nothing like that could ever happen again—not in this day and age”. Well we hope not but…

Reviewer: Sheila Connor