With the John Boyne fable being an apical novel of bestseller summits across the globe, and the subsequent film adaptation achieving great salutations at the box office, director Joe Murphy’s stage version of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas certainly has its work cut out for it following in some very large footsteps. But despite great stagecraft and a great story, the Children’s Touring Partnership’s newest production falls just short of the mark, living in the shadow cast by its two much bigger twin brothers, and at times disappearing in it completely.
The much loved tale is told through the eyes of eight-year-old Bruno (Finlay Wright-Stephens) – the innocent son of a concentration camp commandant (Phil Cheadle). At the request of “the Fury”, Bruno and his family move to a house outside “Out-with” where Bruno’s natural young boyish taste for exploration leads him to the namesake of the production, Shmuel (Tom Hibberd), a boy of equal age on the other side of a barbed wire fence. The sweet duo form an unlikely friendship which inevitably leads to the famously heart-breaking and poetically ironic conclusion.
The biggest issue is that while the show balls its fist back, it just fails to deliver on that emotional punch that such a story requires. The show’s energy is lacking somewhat, with cast members occasionally being slow on cue. Where there should have been sharp intakes of breath from the audience there were instead moments of silent indifference. While the cast prove they are adept actors throughout (the commandant’s mother denouncing her son’s ways at a party being particularly fascinating), some of the more climactic moments feel like they could have given more, the most significant scenes being when Jewish servant Pavel (Robert Styles) is beaten senseless by the vicious Kotler (Ed Brody), and the final, as Bruno, now disguised as a prisoner, and Shmuel take their last adventure together into the gas chamber. It was a shame that such a great build up by the two youngest actors came to an anti-climactic ending that was abrupt for all the wrong reasons, one that seemed almost void of emotion.
Particularly impressive were the two leads, Wright-Stephens and Hibberd as Bruno and Shmuel respectively. Wright-Stephens is naive where Hibberd is resigned, the young dynamic is strong. The two carry the weight of the show on small yet talented shoulders, performing with ability far beyond their years and giving the show its touching edge, the scene where the two hold hands underneath the barbed wire fence being particularly sweet.
Set and costume designer Robert Innes Hopkins’s set design is the highlight of the performance. The minimalist set design on a revolving stage does not cheapen the story, but in fact aids it. The fluidly moving stage and minimal set add a touch of warm surrealism, as if the audience is truly seeing the tale through a youthful set of eyes. Especially when we get our first glance of the “Out-with” inmates, who are shown as cartoony yet gritty images projected on the back wall cleverly shaped like a window. This is made more profound when the audience is brought crashing back to the reality of Bruno’s life with the heavy clack clack of a typewriter punctuating the start of a new scene, the sound along with the brooding music juxtaposing the words being typed on the wall, the register almost childlike. Hopkins’s set design with the accompaniments of lighting designer Malcolm Rippeth’s lighting and composer Stephen Warbeck’s musical score are particularly enthralling, the stylistic sequence of Bruno exploring being most memorable. Watching the little man being carried up and over obstacles by stage hands to dark blue lighting and ambient music only to appear at the dreaded barbed wire fence is quite a spectacle to behold.
A good jab at a famous tale that stops just short of its potential, recommended to any fan of the book.
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is playing at Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury until 28 March. For tickets and more information, see the Marlowe Theatre website.