Theatre Review: The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas – The Lowry, Salford

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews

John Boyne’s best-selling novel The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas has been adapted for stage in a hard-hitting, powerful and emotional production that is sure to tug on your heart strings.

Seen through the eyes of a nine-year-old, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas tells the heart-wrenching tale of two young boys, Bruno and Shmuel who strike up a forbidden friendship in a German concentration camp. Since it was published in 2006, Boyne’s book has sold more than six million copies and was made into a hugely successful film in 2008, which grossed more than $40m worldwide.

What propels the story forward is the innocence and ignorance of the two boys, particularly Bruno. Shielded from the reality of World War II, Bruno doesn’t fully understand what he’s witnessing when he stumbles across Jewish prisoner Shmuel whilst out exploring. Young, naïve and sheltered, Bruno mistakes the camp for a farm, the uniforms for pyjamas, and even begrudges Shmuel his friends. The play is laced with poetic irony and offers a unique perspective on how prejudice, hatred and violence affect innocent people, particularly children, during wartime.

The true stars of the performance are undoubtedly the two young actors playing Bruno and Shmuel. Jabez Cheeseman is superb as Bruno, the young German who idolises his father and is desperate for a friend. Colby Mulgrew is also puts in an excellent performance as scrawny Shmuel, who shies away from speaking out about the grim nature of his life when questioned by Bruno. The interaction between the two characters is full of humour and candour and the young performers, who carry the vast majority of scenes on their young shoulders, do so with poise and professionalism.

The young actors are supported by an incredibly strong cast and creative team. Marianne Oldham puts in an excellent performance as Bruno’s unhappy mother who is driven to drink and adultery. Robert Styles as the Jewish servant Pavel, Eleanor Thorn as Gretel and Phil Cheadle as the German commandant and Bruno’s father also put in a strong performance.

Angus Jackson does an impressive job of turning Boyne’s best-seller into a plausible stage adaption, even if some of the original book content is reduced. Robert Innes Hopkins’ rotating set is simple but incredibly effective with minimalistic props and a barbed wire fence dividing the friendship. Joe Murphy’s clever direction, particularly the orchestrated movement where Bruno finds Shmuel while out exploring is particularly good, and gives the production its flair and fluidity.

The play finishes with a startling and devastating final scene that is both shocking and upsetting. All in all, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is a powerful, thought-provoking and incredibly moving piece of theatre that is sure to pull on your heart strings.

Tours until June 27

Reviewer: Donna Kelly