Small boys are full of questions.
That eternal trait is put to perfect use by John Boyne in his startling story of two children who find themselves on opposite sides of a World War Two concentration camp’s sinister razor wire. In a glowering society in which questions are verboten and allegiance is compulsory – comply or die – it takes the naivety of the nine-year-old Camp Commandant’s son Bruno to slowly expose the full horror off what is really going on. Shorn of his old friends by the family’s enforced move out of Berlin to his father’s new posting, he strikes up with a polite Polish boy Shmuel who, for some strange reason, has bare feet, wears striped pyjamas all of the time….and isn’t allowed out to play. And why isn’t there a café over there?
The central performances are a wonder to watch. The two boys have a huge amount of acting to do. They have demanding and substantial scenes alone together, trying to make friends through a fence. On Press Night, Finlay Wright-Stephens and Tom Hibberd were outstanding. They subtly conveyed creeping horrors the child actors may not yet be old enough to fully appreciate. They charmingly repeated worn out grown-up maxims about ‘the foreseeable future’. And they neatly handled the piercing ironies of their innocence. They play kids trying to make sense of the nonsensical and comprehend the incomprehensible. Their vocal work belies their age – especially their ability to use inflection to convey lack of understanding. I found myself drawn down and transfixed.
Given the above, the adult performances still shine. Marianne Oldham leads the line as the once towering mother whose life is pulled from under her by the demands of the regime. Her brave face becomes increasingly lined as the temptations of alcohol and a young soldier get to her. She and director Joe Murphy have created a reflected character who we really only see through her sons eyes. The hints are clear enough but Bruno can only pick up on the clues of her collapse without quite putting anything into words. And all the while a concentration camp cello undescores the play’s warning.
But the real star of the show is Angus Jackson, the unseen adaptor. He’s done an absolutely perfect job of taking a deeply sensitive novel and giving the cast a version that almost acts itself. It’s a deeply focused script which puts the boys’ relationship firmly centre stage whilst giving us just enough world-changing context to fully absorb their predicament. And he’s done it with a family audience uppermost in his mind; the boys’ final fate is only infered.
The Children’s Touring Partnership is a powerful force for good – giving a new generation an early appreciation of the possibilities of proper theatre. There are always children at the centre of their stories and – I’m delighted to say – always children in the stalls, giving them rapt attention. They even have the ability to suspend the rattle of sweet wrappers.
As you may have gathered, I am full of admiration. I just wish they had started touring 60 years earlier.
Visit www.grandtheatre.info for bookings & information about Wolverhampton’s Grand Theatre