The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (Tour) - Dance Review

Northern Ballet are a company well-known for their ambitious, narrative-led productions but they perhaps face their toughest challenge with their adaptation of the controversial novel and film ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.’ Set in Nazi Germany, the story (or perhaps ‘fable’ is a better description, as opined by the novels front cover) follows eight year old Bruno (Kevin Poeung) whose father, a high-ranking figure in the Nazi party, is made commandant of Auschwitz. Being moved from swanky Berlin to his new home close to the camp, Bruno is seemingly unaware of the purpose of his father’s new job, only knowing ‘The Fury’ has moved him away from his friends. At his new home, the bored Bruno begins to explore, and at the fence of the camp meets Schmuel (Luke Francis) a small Jewish boy of his age. From there a friendship develops between the two young boys, but it all ends in inevitable tragedy by the close of the novel.

It seems clear from the programme that the company are aware of the myriad problematic issues with John Boyne’s novel, not least the pure fiction of any young Jewish boy surviving their first horrific moments at Auschwitz or finding an unguarded, unpatrolled and unelectrified fence through which to develop a relationship with another little boy. Although, perhaps it is this awareness that has led to a slightly muddled production. Northern Ballet simultaneously attempt to show the audience more of the horrors of Nazi Germany (that Bruno seems almost absurdly unaware of in the novel and film) but also dabble with a good dash of symbolism throughout.

For example, they use Bruno's idea of ‘The Fury’, a misheard version of ‘The Fuhrer’, and create a demonic bird-like creature, dressed in tattered black rags and a gas mark. Although this omnipresent Fury watching over and orchestrating the Reich is beautifully danced by Giuliano Contadini, the concept is somewhat at odds with the semi-realism of the rest of the ballet. Pivotal moments in Bruno's and Schmuel’s relationship are also highly symbolic too, with the use of a vivid blue sky. When they dance together, the stage loses all its barb wire fencing and the boys become ‘free in friendship’ against the blue. These symbolic elements work individually, but when combined with the highly narrative piece, seem somewhat disjointed.

Northern Ballet are fantastic storytellers and their dancers always move beautifully. No change here on that count, the performers and choreography are strong, although the motifs of movement are perhaps slightly predictable. The Nazi Officers kick and flick and goose-step. Kevin Poeung is an energetic and curious young Bruno, in sharp contrast to Luke Francis’ slow and exhausted movement. It’s a little obvious, but it works. Choreographer Daniel de Andrade has created some striking moments throughout that genuinely give you shivers, however it isn’t until the second act that a connection really begins to form between the characters, not least between Bruno and Schmuel. In a performance that you feel should probably move you to tears, I felt strangely numb, particularly in the final moments.

Instead, the parts that work most effectively in this production are the narrative scenes of Bruno’s family life, where we focus more on the interconnecting relationships between family members and the staff around them. Their reactions to the unfolding horror around them and the disintegration of the family unit provide this production with its richest moments. Particularly notable was Dreda Blow, who danced Bruno’s mother with exceeding grace and elegance. Her seduction by the young Lieutenant Kotler (the powerfully present Dale Rhodes) is a real highlight, and breathtakingly performed by both. But one does have to wonder at the sensitivity of highlighting the story of the ‘perfect’ Nazi family, rather than the horrors of Auschwitz - an almost unforgivable fault of the original source material.

However, there are great successes in the design here. Tim Mitchell’s lighting design was immediately noticeable from the moment the curtain rose, as Bruno’s father (an enigmatic Joseph Taylor) poured over maps and plans with just his hollow face made gaunt by a square of light and the tip of a lit cigarette. The set design from Mark Bailey was also well put together, with smooth and continuous changes of the large set pieces, simple in design, but detailed enough to create Bruno’s home, his father’s office and the horribly iconic gates of Auschwitz. There is also a clever use of perspective too, creating the illusion that the barbed wire fence could run on forever. Perhaps the most harrowing design element however was the sudden revelation of an empty train carriage, light spilling through its slats, the interior made murky by the haze...

This is an extremely well-danced production with some stand out moments and it is genuinely wonderful to see such a diverse and talented cast. However, it is always going to be an almost impossible challenge to effectively capture the true barbarism and horror of this material, particularly with Boyne’s novel as the inspiration. We are left then with an intriguing performance that switches between showing us either too much or too little. Much like the novel and film, one hopes this balletic fable provides a gateway into further education into the real horrors of the Holocaust.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas - Northern Ballet
Aylesbury Waterside Theatre
10th June – 11th June, 2017

Then continuing on tour. Details at -

© Carly Halse - Reviewed on Friday 10th June, 2017

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