Subhi and Jimmie

Yaamin Chowdhury as Subhi and Mary Roubos as Jimmie. Pictures: Robert Day

The Bone Sparrow

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry


What do you think it can be like for a young child – not even a teenager – to be incarcerated behind a massive wire fence. To have been actually born there – and with no hope of getting out?

With guards – the only other inmates he knows - who – with one notable exception – treat one with no kindness, no understanding, no sensitivity. Miriam Nabarro’s forbidding wall of wire, skilfully manoeuvred by the cast, sets the scene as it must be: horrible, forbidding, pitiless, negative: an instance almost of humanity at its most bestial. 

To be a refugee – an escapee from the appalling abuse inflicted on the Rohingya minority on Burma (Myanmar) without father or mother – although we actually see him being born - or sister to hand: abandoned alone inside an Australian detention centre for hapless immigrants. To know nothing of the evolving world outside. To have only your imagination to bring you any kind of cheer or uplift.

That this is Australia is perhaps a surprise, because at several points one might sense that we are witnessing the ruthless, unfeeling atmosphere of South Africa during its most aggressive period of apartheid. In short, it’s a very unpleasant place to be. Happiness is virtually banned. Optimism is a waste of time. Any sense of understanding from your warders is out of the question. 

In fact, no hope. Except that this boy is blessed with a growing imagination, with visions, which bring some small degree of relief to his anguished situation. A magical dream of a beautiful enveloping ocean, which brings some solace; an awareness and envy of the freedom of birds; and also a somehow friendly sound of whales who dwell in the water. A yearning for something that will change his life. And, thank goodness, some friends. Special friends – but they are outside the fence. They at least give him advice, insight, wisdom. But they’re inaccessible. He’s trapped, and they can bring him no real help.

Is there some kind of dream of getting out one day? It’s only the tiniest fragment of hope, but it’s just there. The belief that someday something might change.    


Subhi and Queenie

Yaamin Chowdhury Subhi and Siobhan Athwal as Queenie

So, this is not a happy, free, unoppressive aspect of Australia. That’s the essence of Zana Fraillon’s incredibly moving story about Subhi, a lad – not even a teenager - permanently on the wrong side of the fence. It’s a parallel which has led many commentators to compare it with John Boyne’s story of a boy trapped in a Second World War prison camp, who makes an unlikely friend who makes life tolerable, and positive.

The Bone Sparrow is a beautiful, vivid and deeply touching reminder that there is such a thing as suffering even for the entirely innocent. That there must be, can be, an aspiration to freedom and even – could that be possible? - triumph.

Yaamin Chowdury plays Subhi, and it’s a heck of undertaking. He has to make the imprisoned boy seem believably naïve, and yet we see his imagination grow. He is strikingly animated – to begin with his voice is almost aggressive, so helpless does he feel in his cruel, even brutal, situation. But as he quietens down, we see, and hear, the gentle, tender-hearted, innately caring, innocent but somehow bravely determined, youngster: we feel for Subhi, our hearts go out to him, he deserves our affection, he’s lovable, he’s worthy of every feeling one can share with him. Anxious yes, scared, confused for obvious reasons, but he isn’t permanently miserable, self-pitying, sullen, dejected, despondent. He has an incredible spirit about him, and courage.

Thank goodness for such friends as he can gather. Certainly one of the best is Eli, who is also confined, but older. Elmi Rashid Elmi makes of Eli a wonderfully wise, insightful, enlightened figure: one who has seen the world, who knows how it ticks, who has so much to impart to the boy who hangs on his every word. He is so perceptive, and he shares this crucial perception with the boy. He is guide, a kind of leader, who sees where his help is needed and offers it generously and undemandingly. This friendship of the most wonderful kind, a closeness, a fellowship and warmth which plays a major part in Subhi’s mental and emotional growth.

Another – in this case unexpected – support is one of the guards, a kind, encouraging, reassuring figure played with delicacy and sensitivity by Devesh Kishore. To have a measure of gentleness actually within the caged walls offers Subhi a significant uplift. It’s a little, but it counts. The guard, too, is probably much older. But he can see where caring is needed – certainly by a boy, and perhaps he is a parent himself. He knows about Subhi’s naivete, and realises that it needs nursing, bringing alive, a lot of encouragement.

In fact one of the most effective aspects of S.Shakthidharan’s scrupulously sensitive adaptation of the book (Shakthi is a very well known, highly admired Australian storyteller) is the way he crafts many scenes into twos or threes - what we might almost call duets or trios: when these pairings or small groups are onstage together, he achieves a wonderfully focused feel, a kind of clarity – we might call it an innocent transparency, with an enviable simplicity of understanding – which takes us right into the profound heart of the story.

camp trio

Elmi Rashid Elmi as Eli, Yaamin Chowdhury as Subhi and Siobhan Athwal as Queenie

In some cases, in a well-delivered text, it felt as if some female roles perhaps had the edge, the men (including Subhi) speaking rather fast: here especially important was Queenie. Siobhan Ashwal brought a terrific vigour and vocal energy to this significant role: a bit like Eli (whose speaking was always admirable) she dispensed a lot of common sense; she sees through all the negatives of Subhi’s seemingly impossible, inescapable situation and is determined to create a more positive framework through which life’s vexations – and the boy’s situation above all – can be managed, coped with and perhaps even, in spirit at least, overcome.

When she was on stage she brought a fire, a vitality, in fact a vision that insisted that some of the grimmer moments might be lightened. There were several stars in this show, but she was certainly one.

But it is another who unexpectedly brings hope and some notion that there may be a future that offers a fresh vision and some optimism. This is the girl Jimmie. Unlike Subhi, she is outside the wire, on the longed-for other side. Jimmie, is outwardly an impatient, scruffy girl who herself has in a sense lost her own hope, feeling of being wanted, independence. But as it turns out she matters more than anyone. Mary Roubos brings her real, essential pathos and hers is also a beautifully, lucidly spoken role.

Jimmie too, it rapidly turns out, has suffered. In addition, she cannot read, and is shorn of her most intimate memories, whereas Subhi can. She has a tragic tale of her own origins, having lost her own mother, and needing not only Subhi’s eagerly given moral support but his ability to unravel the ragged document she has which both records her own family’s love songs and evokes the tragedy which they, too, have been through.

As Subhi reads aloud to her, they begin to discover that their own lives have connections: that pain is a terrible thing, but that sharing one’s anguish can not just allay it but begin to generate a new, valid vision.

From others passing by – a very smart, distinguished, though perhaps unperceptive mullah, and a passionate if slightly dotty Islamic believer who from a gush or words does offer, or tries to offer, little bits of advice that inject empathetic touches of insight, Subhi is not ignored. But all of these can only be a nudge towards some kind of new view, and glimpses of things that can – oh, how we hope for him - open Subhi’s eyes to something more real.

But above all it is Jimmie, whom he so touchingly senses has become his ‘guardian angel’ who moves the narrative forward with this sharing of experience as a means of lessening, perhaps evaporating, desperation. Things that have been confused gradually begin to bring light. And it’s the heartfelt and heartrending interplay between the two which gives this play, like the book, its deep, and for us, longlasting set of values.

Directed by Sue Richardson, The Bone Sparrow, a joint production  by the Belgrade Theatre, Pilot Theatre, York, , Derby Theatre, York Theatre Royal and Mercury Theatre Colchester runs to 26-03-22.

Roderic Dunnett


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