The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas @ Chichester Festival Theatre
‘The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas’, one of the most popular books of recent years and a wonderfully moving film, was bound to appear on stage at some point. The characters, the subject matter and the approach that speaks to children as much as adults seem a perfect match for the theatre. As such we were intrigued to see it nestled into Chichester’s winter season and headed to the the theatre with our hopes high for a powerful evening of theatre.
Sadly, we left two hours later largely unmoved by a production that does nothing wrong but somehow fails to connect with an audience ready and waiting to leave the theatre with tears in their eyes.
The performances are solid enough, albeit without any real standouts. The child performers are largely relied upon to carry the emotional load. Cameron Duncan makes for a cheeky Bruno and Colby Mulgrew, tiny even on Chichester’s cosy stage, accurately portrays Schmuel’s beaten down attitude, but both are directed to rattle through their lines at break-neck speed for much of the show, removing all the emotional sting from their words.
The same is true for the adult cast and this must be a directorial decision from Joe Murphy. He’s not helped by Angus Jackson’s script, which shunts from scene to scene with alarming rapidity! There are few sympathetic characters here either, which hardly helps to hook the audience. Bruno is written as a child completely blind to what happens around him, his mother hints at an affair with a young soldier and most of the rest of the cast are Nazis.
The two exceptions come in the form of Bruno’s Grandmother, a fading singer who rails against her son taking a commission in the army to go and run a concentration camp. It’s to Helen Anderson’s credit that she manages to catch us with her rejection of her son’s decision and comes closest to plucking a tear from the eye. Robert Styles has a poignant moment too as Pavel, the Jew prisoner who disobeys orders to patch up Bruno after a fall.
As the family maid Maria Rosie Wyatt acts as the conscience of the family and does a good job that is obliterated by an insultingly simplistic closing monologue warning the audience that we can’t let the horrors of Auschwitz happen again. It’s as if Jackson doesn’t trust his own script to make this point abundantly clear.
To be fair the show has been pitched equally at adults and children and as such is hamstrung in not entirely appealing to either. I suspect that the vast swathes of school children in attendance last night will have gained more from their evening than we did, but can’t help feeling that in their own way they will be just as underwhelmed.