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Review: The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle

Masterly staging of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas doesn't entirely dispel the shortfalls of a flawed novel

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

Historical tragedies can be a minefield for artists, writers and the like. There’s a danger that the emotional response to the original event will dwarf the art inspired by it.

To some extent this play, adapted from the novel by John Boyne, falls into this trap. It’s a shame because, production-wise, it’s one of the finest shows I’ve seen here.

Pitched perfectly at an audience of older children and young teenagers, it follows Bruno, nine-year-old son of a concentration camp commandant, as his friendship with Shmuel, a young boy on ‘the other side of the fence’, winds its way towards a tragic conclusion.

Touching performances from young leads Jabez Cheeseman, Colby Mulgrew and Eleanor Thorn head up a strong supporting cast of adults.

Director Joe Murphy doesn’t insult the intelligence of younger audience members by shying away from Bruno’s and Gretel’s flaws, nor does he hold back on the brutal realities of Schmuel’s situation. The violence is not down-played, but neither is it unnecessarily graphic.

It’s a beautiful set, too. Minimalist but innovative, it allows the characters’ stories to unfold without distraction. Occasional video projections gave an extra emotional punch without being too flashy, and the revolving stage shifts the perspective from character to character seamlessly.

Despite all this, Big Questions still loom – and often they arise from gaping implausibilities in the plot.

“This is a fable” states one of the characters at the start. Maybe so, but there seems something slightly too glib about this... something a bit lazy about using childhood innocence as an over-ride switch to allow Bruno to be so utterly clueless about everything.

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

The premise that a nine-year-old boy, whose father moves in the highest of Nazi echelons, didn’t know who or what ‘the Fuhrer’ was proved one suspension of disbelief too far for me.

Critics of the novel dislike its uses one of the 20th Century’s darkest moments as a backdrop for a schmaltzy morality lesson about the power of friendship.

Staging it live goes some way to dispelling this. You hear the silences. You see the reactions of the adult characters as they try their best to deny – to themselves and to their children – the reality of the situation. You jump at the final, heart-wrenching slam of the door.

If the theme verges on being slightly sentimental, the presentation certainly doesn’t.

This is a masterly adaptation of a flawed novel, brilliantly acted, well staged and perfect for the younger audience it is pitched at. This doesn’t extinguish some of the original novel’s shortfalls.

Kathryn Beeson

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