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Author John Boyne on his bestselling novel The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

A stage adaptation of John Boyne's famous but harrowing wartime tale is coming to Newcastle Theatre Royal

Manuel Harlan A scene from The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas
A scene from The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

While The Producers (at Sunderland Empire) has had us laughing at the Nazis, a play bound for the Theatre Royal goes to the dark heart of their noxious regime.

Laughter is not the currency of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas but the “heart-wrenching tale of an unlikely friendship between two innocent boys” will aim to please in a different way.

It is an adaptation of the novel by John Boyne which has sold in millions around the world and was turned into a 2008 film.

The innocent boys are Bruno and Shmuel. It is wartime and they live on different sides of a sinister fence and in parallel worlds.

Bruno’s father, as you’ll know if you’ve read the novel, was given a big job by his boss – ‘the Fury’, as the boy calls him.

It meant the nine-year-old and his sister and mother had to leave their lovely big home in Berlin for a strangely isolated house that, when Bruno shut his eyes, “just felt empty and cold, as if he was in the loneliest place in the world”.

Shmuel, in the book, first comes into Bruno’s life as a “dot that became a speck that became a blob that became a figure that became a boy” – a smaller boy than Bruno, with a forlorn expression, dirty feet and “the same striped pyjamas that all the other people on that side of the fence wore”.

John Boyne has written nine novels for adults and five for younger readers, of which this was the first.

“The Holocaust fascinated me from when I was a teenager,” he says on the phone from Dublin, where he was born in 1971 and still lives.

“I read very widely on the subject, not thinking I was going to write about it. But then the idea came to me of this story about two boys.

“I never really plot my novels. I begin with an idea, start writing and see where it takes me. With this novel it felt as if the idea had always been in the back of my head.”

Manuel Harlan A scene from The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas
A scene from The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

The writing of it was done inside a year, the plot rolling from John’s head onto the page with comparative ease.

It was, at first, “just a novel”, like all the others. But, says John, something happened.

“I remember being about two or three chapters in and it occurred to me that this was a book for young people. I’d never written one but the only thing that mattered to me was getting the story down.”

The fact that it is a set text for pupils aged 11 to 14 tells us that John’s hunch was right. But any powerful story told in plain but compelling prose will span any generation gap.

“My other books had gained a respectable audience but this one changed everything,” says John.

“It got me an international readership. I had a feeling it was going to do better than the previous novels but I wasn’t really prepared for what happened.

“It has been an incredible experience. So many foreign publication rights have been sold and I never thought I’d still be talking about it nine-and-a-half years later.”

When John was the age of the boys in his book he was taking his first steps towards his future career.

“From about nine or 10 I was writing short stories. I was always focused on being a writer. I didn’t know if I was going to be good enough but it really was the only thing I wanted to do and I was disciplined about it.

“My parents were very encouraging because they could see how keen I was.”

His reading preferences at that age wouldn’t have seemed unusual a century ago but you can’t help feeling only a special reader these days would turn for pleasure to Treasure Island, Swiss Family Robinson and Kidnapped.

“Even as an adult,” he says, “I like that form of story-telling, the classic adventure story. But I suppose I was quite a precocious reader as a child.”

Richard Gilligan John Boyne, author of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas
John Boyne, author of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

He studied English Literature at Trinity College, Dublin, and progressed to the University of East Anglia’s pioneering creative writing course, where he won a prize. The first short story he had published, The Entertainments Jar, was shortlisted for another. It was an auspicious start.

Now established as a writer to watch, John Boyne is writing for both adults and younger readers and burnishing a reputation for exploring dark corners.

His most recent adult novel was A History of Loneliness, set against recent revelations that have cast the Catholic Church in a sinister light.

The Daily Mail called it “a brave, angry and powerful novel”. “Harsh” and “unsparing” was The Guardian’s verdict.

John’s next novel for young readers is due out in October. The Boy at the Top of the Mountain takes us back to 1935 when an orphan, Pierrot, leaves his Paris home for a new life with Aunt Beatrix, a servant in a wealthy household on top of a German mountain.

This is the Berghot, home of Adolf Hitler, the ‘Fury’ of that earlier novel..

John makes no apology for exploring similar ground. “When I write one story, one hundred others come to me,” he says.

No apology is needed. He’s a publisher’s – and a reader’s – dream.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, adapted by Angus Jackson and directed by Joe Murphy, is at the Theatre Royal from Tuesday, May 19 to Saturday, May 23 (suitable for ages 11 plus). Tickets: tel. 08448 112121 or via www.theatreroyal.co.uk

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