Review: The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas at Liverpool Playhouse

Posted on 1 April 2015
By Chris High
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There are certain topics – whilst advocating that nothing should be taboo when writing a work of fiction – that need to be handled with infinite care, and the Holocaust, and all that went with it, is just such a topic by its very nature. Unfortunately, the adaptation of John Boyne’s best-selling The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, currently running at The Liverpool Playhouse and despite being applauded as being a “starting point” for children’s engagement with the subject, plays way too fast and loose with the facts surrounding what happened in Nazi Germany’s most notorious concentration camp and the effects it had on those involved.

So where do the problems lie? Well, possibly, in labelling the story as a fable as the term provides not only an unnecessary expectation as to what is to follow – given that fables generally involve the personification of animals – but also a misguided narrative as well.

Even to apply the Brechtian term of fabel would also be misleading as this usually means the development and renewed understanding of a character and / or their relationship with another. However, there isn’t any development of character here as Bruno doesn’t learn anything from his experiences and nor really, in all honesty, do any of the other characters.

With all of this in mind,it becomes extremely difficult to concentrate on the performances, the majority of which are good. Jabez Cheeseman as the cheeky Kommandant’s son, Bruno, and Colby Mulgrew as the captured Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Shmuel, both have a great many lines and these are delivered with a confidence that belies their tender ages.

Marianne Oldham as the increasingly disenchanted Mother and Phil Cheadle as her “only obeying orders” husband are also well presented, as is Maria the housemaid, played here by Rosie Wyatt whose simple depiction often shines with subtle signs telling of her unhappiness, fear and foreboding, although the need for her to almost shout her discontent on occasion is a little irritating.

The set is superb and some of the choreography – particularly during the scene in which Bruno runs through the woods to first encounter Shmuel – is extremely well executed, but the effort involved here only serves to make the story – or, more importantly, its many weaknesses – all the more difficult to justify.

As an example, when Bruno is confronted by a bullying, brash Lieutenant and denies ever knowing his “friend”, it comes across as though the German boy has dobbed the Pole in for breaking wind in class, rather than handed down Shmuel a beating that would, in reality, have resulted in his immediate death.

A suspension of disbelief is one thing, but the belief concerning the cruelty within Auschwitz – here quite cleverly called Out With by the children – should surely never be suspended, least of all for dramatic effect and particularly when the whole concept is aimed at young audiences.

Indeed, so diluted are the horrors of the camp – it would be highly unlikely for Shmuel to be alive within an hour of arriving given his age; the boys converse through the only spare section of fencing that didn’t have around 5,000 volts running through it; the division of very nearly two miles separating concentration camp Auschwitz from death camp Birkenau being totally ignored (this latter, in fact, being almost inexcusable as Bruno spots Shmuel in the distance, from his own bedroom window and can yet make out he’s a boy and, also, he’s “very dirty”) – the play might as well have been set in the foothills of Narnia, rather than in the depths of Nazi occupied Poland, for all of the credibility it has as an educational tool.

All too often, the audience are asked to not let the facts get in the way of a “good” story. The problem with this request, however, is that the story isn’t particularly good.

Sorry, but if this is being seen as the way to engage children with “history” then it is an approach which should be reconsidered pretty quickly, as it borders on offensive that such rudimentary facts about Auschwitz-Birkenau, and the Holocaust as a whole, are being ignored – not only with regards to the complexities of the subject matter itself, but also to the general intelligence of the audiences it is designed to inform and entertain.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas
The Liverpool Playhouse Theatre
March 30 – April 4
Author: John Boyne
Adaptor: Angus Jackson
Director: Joe Murphy
Set & Costumes: Robert Innes Hopkins
Cast Includes: Jabez Cheeseman, Colby Mulgrew, Eleanor Thorn, Phil Cheadle, Marianne Oldham, Rosie Wyatt, Ed Brody
Running Time: 2 hrs 15 mins
PR Rating: *