Bruno and Shmuel

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton


Northern Ballet, under artistic director David Nixon, must be one of the most inventive and certainly bravest ballet companies around.

Not for them a diet of the easy, bums on seats, popular options such as Coppélia, Swan Lake or Nutcracker. Northern constantly head off into uncharted territory, pushing boundries, turning the most unlikely of plays, opera and literature into dance with such diverse productions as 1984, A Streetcar Named Desire, The Great Gatsby and Jane Eyre.

The latest is John Boyne’s 2006 controversial Holocaust novel set in the Auschwitz death camp, and no doubt the ballet will have its same detractors.

The story is simple. The Nazi officer father of Bruno, a nine-year-old boy, is promoted to commandant of Auschwitz where the boy, exploring his new surroundings, befriends a Jewish boy, Shmuel, of the same age on the other side of the wire fence, a boy in the camp uniform, the striped pyjamas.

Bruno eventually sneaks into the camp to play with Shmuel and help him search for his missing father, only to end up a victim in his his Nazi father’s gas chambers.

The objections to the book were led by claims of inaccuracy in that the camp had no nine-year-olds, (anyone too young to work was immediately executed on arrival), while the idea of the commandant’s son being able to wander around the perimeter wire and befriend an inmate was not only impossible but, it was claimed, trivialised the horror and brutality of the real camp.

Jews arriving

More Jews arrive at the death camp in cattle trucks

Against that though the book, which has sold in its millions, brought the horror of the Holocaust to a new generation, making it relevant to those young enough to see The Final Solution, not as older people did, as a contemporary evil, but merely something horrible that happened in history, a long time ago, like The Spanish Inquisition.

And in truth it is difficult to express the horror and brutality of Auschwitz in dance, the herding of Juden, with their yellow stars, into cattle trucks which appear at the rear of the stage, the brutality of guards to the inmates and the final walk into the gas chamber become stylised.

And I was not too sure about The Fury, danced by Giuliano Contadini. In the book Bruno mishears the Führer, Hitler, as The Fury. Here The Fury is rather like a grotesque angel of death always hovering and ready to despatch a life, a full time job at Auschwitz. The Fury, instead of an abstract idea in a boy's head, becomes spectre, a herald of horror haunting the camp.

Kevin Poeung dances Bruno with a permanent air of innocence although he has his moment of self preservation shame when he lies about giving food to Dr Pavel (Jonathan Hanks) the family’s Jewish servant, and a former doctor, who has helped him, a lie which gets Pavel a beating for stealing food.

Joseph Taylor as Bruno’s father is suitably aloof and elegant as a well-dressed German officer while Dale Rhodes, complete with black lightning epaulettes, is a suitably brutal SS Lieutenant Kotler, always ready to lay into an inmate. He gets his comeuppance for a dalliance with the Commandant’s wife, danced by Dreda Blow, who strangely is appalled when she finds out what is happening in the camp, yet finds herself drawn to a man who revels in the very genocide that so horrified her.

And behind the wire we have Shmuel, the Jewish boy who is the catalyst which is to make the tragedy of Auschwitz personal for its commandant. Luke Francis manages to depict some of the weary despair of the doomed, innocent child in a measured performance.

There is good support too from Rachael Gillespie as Bruno's sister Gretel and Dominique Larose as the maid Maria, who add a surreal air of domesticity to the unspeakable terror around them.

Arrival of more Jewish prisoners

Jewish prisoners facing extermination

Director and choreographer Daniel de Andrade gives the Nazi guards, strutting angular movement with echoes of the goose step while we see the once happy, relatively, Jews, turned into shambling, starving wrecks, brutalised in the camp.

The set from Mark Bailey, also responsible for the authentic costumes, is imposing with a wire fence which descends from the flies to divide the stage, a huge Third Reich eagle and laurel wreath, and shutters and hidden doors at the rear for gas chambers and cattle trucks, a stage cold, grey, in sombre, giant, imperial style.

And then there is Tim Mitchell’s dramatic, harsh, lighting design, highlighting scenes with projections of windows, or picking out people or items with tiny squares of light, causing panic with searching beams of searchlights and a superb ever changing pathway as Bruno runs to the fence. All in uncompromising white light except for one moment when Bruno and Scmuel find a ball and defy the world around them, playing as children, as equals, and just for a moment the sky is blue and sunshine breaks out until reality once more overwhelms them.

The whole story is danced to original music from Gary Yershon played by The Northern Ballet Sinfonia under conductor John Pryce Jones.

The book may have its inaccuracies and the ballet, by the very nature of dance, is highly stylised which means that portraying the subject will always risk controversy. As a ballet it can never be classed as entertainment, even enjoyable in a conventional sense, but it is beautifully danced and never crass or disrespectful of its subject.

If there is a debate or people discuss or think about the content then surely Northern Ballet have done their job with a thoughtful and at times moving piece of theatre. To 31-05-17

Roger Clarke



A second view


It is difficult to imagine a ballet based on such a vile place as the Auschwitz concentration camp, but John Boyne’s story of two nine-year-old boys on opposite sides of the fence is a gripping experience.

The dancing to Daniel de Andrade’s imaginative choreography is thoroughly enjoyable, and while there are, inevitably, brutal moments, the unlikely friendship between the two youngsters involves many warm and emotional incidents to ease the tension.

Kevin Poeung brings true innocence to the role of Bruno, son of the new camp commandant, who has no idea what his SS father’s job entails, while Luke Francis, his Jewish friend, Shmuel, excels in a variety of skilful ballet movements which reveal spells of joy and the agony of hunger.

As far as Bruno is concerned, Shmuel is just another boy in ‘striped pyjamas’, but their dangerous playtime is heading for a tragic outcome in a camp where the gas chamber is a frequent destiny for adult prisoners.

Joseph Taylor impresses as the commandant, and Dale Rhodes is totally convincing dancing the role of the brutish SS Lieutenant Kotler, stalked and inspired by the gruesome Fury (Fuhrer), superbly danced by Giuliano Contadini, and the officer is involved in some very realistic beating scenes.

Dreda Blow (Bruno’s mother), Rachael Gillespie (his sister Gretel) and Dominique Larose (Maria the maid) all make significant contributions to the ballet, and Gary Yershon’s music, played by the Northern Ballet Sinfonia, conducted by John Pryce Jones, fits the story perfectly. The sets, particularly the barbed wire compound, provide an ideal feeling of horror.

Paul Marston 

Index page Grand Reviews A-Z Reviews by Theatre