The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

Adapted by Angus Jackson from the novel by John Boyne
The Children's Touring Partnership
Liverpool Playhouse

Jabez Cheeseman as Bruno and Colby Mulgrew as Shmuel Credit: Manuel Harlan
Marianne Oldham as Mother, Phil Cheadle as Father and Eleanor Thorn as Gretel Credit: Manuel Harlan
Colby Mulgrew as Shmuel and Jabez Cheeseman as Bruno Credit: Manuel Harlan

The Holocaust as seen through the eyes of a child is the intriguing premise of the latest production from The Children’s Touring Partnership.

Adapted from John Boyne’s novel of the same name, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, according to the producers, is a fable, but a word of warning: as fables go it doesn’t get much darker than this subject matter.

Just how dark dare we go? That’s the question this production must wrestle with. After all, some of the stars of this production have not even reached double figures in terms of age. Furthermore, judging by the audience in Liverpool’s Playhouse theatre, the average audience age falls into the Harry Potter demographic.

It’s a consideration however that does not unduly detract from the main thrust of the narrative. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is essentially a presentation of the madness and potential for evil of the human race, traits which are magnified exponentially when viewed through the wide, innocent eyes of a child. Much of that evil is implied rather than enacted. Thus the awkward issue of Holocaust-related violence etc. is artfully avoided.

The story of a friendship that develops between a Jewish and a German boy with Auschwitz as a backdrop could be termed ‘unlikely’, yet it soon becomes apparent that this friendship, stripped of political and social machinations, is in fact just a normal friendship between two boys. It’s a simple yet effective message.

As might be expected, this is all about the kids. Young Colby Mulgrew (Shmuel) steals the show as a brittle Holocaust prisoner, a tiny figure, whose performance has tons of heart. Playing opposite, Jabez Cheeseman is a strong, confident Bruno, an archetypal child of the Reich, one not quite fully indoctrinated into a vile ideology. If some of his lines do occasionally get lost, the sheer size and scope of the part would be enough to faze even seasoned actors.

Staging is imaginative throughout, from the gnashing typewritten keys punching out scene headers on the projection screen to the revolving barbed-wire fence of the Nazi death camp. A particular highlight is Bruno’s first foray to the perimeter fence, as deftly a choreographed sequence as one will find, out into the symbolic hinterlands of pain and sub-human existence.

There is much to like about this production. It manages to pull off that notoriously difficult trick of appealing to both younger and older sectors. Yes, there are times when perhaps the telling needed to give way to more showing, but, as already noted, the producers' hands are tied somewhat. Generally, the suggestion of evil is usually adequate here.

Depending on one’s reaction to the fable element of this production, the ending will either be entirely fitting or entirely contrived. Purely as fable, the ending, shocking as it is, works. What may at times be unsubtle for older audience members may well have the power of revelation for the more youthfully disposed. Such duality is worth bearing in mind when taking one’s seat for this production.

Overall, The Children’s Touring Partnership has created a memorable event. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is always creative and thought-provoking. Why can’t history lessons always be as entertaining as this?

Reviewer: David Sedgwick

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