Review: Northern Ballet's THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PYJAMAS at the Aylesbury Waterside, UK Tour

I re-read The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne in anticipation for seeing the new Northern Ballet tour of the story and if there's one thing that the story makes me feel, it's astounded. Not only am I floored by how emotionally gut-wrenching this tale - originally written for young teens! - is, but I'm also fascinated by how daring Boyne was to end the story in such a twisted and brutal way.

It's a story that many of us know, but when I went to see the ballet at the Aylesbury Waterside last night, my usual theatre date Grandma Nolan had never heard the story in full before; she's never read the book, nor has she seen the film. I didn't let her find out the story until the interval to see how it played out and to my surprise, she did finish the act feeling somewhat confused. I must admit: when I went into the performance, I was entirely unsure as to whether or not a story as unique as this one could be told on stage in the form of a ballet and in many ways, artistic director David Nixon OBE has succeeded, but a bit of me thinks it falls short in some parts.

Bruno dances with his mother in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

It is important to note though that when it does fall short, it barely falls at all and overall, this piece is fantastic. The only two queries I had for the piece were from the perspective of a big fan of the story and from the perspective of a complete newcomer. From the newcomer's perspective, I can completely sympathise that the ballet is somewhat inaccessible in its entirety: yes you can get the main gist of the story, but a lot of it makes no sense at all if you haven't been exposed to the tale before, or you haven't read the synopsis in the programme. This is, however, pretty typical with more non-spoken word pieces of theatre, so it's a very minor point to make.

As a fan of the book though, I did feel like the tone of the piece differed greatly, which is what I loved about it originally the most. The feeling that I miss is definitely more something that the book offered, so it's easily forgiven as the ballet is very openly based upon the Miramax film adaptation and not the book, but the idea that the story is told from Bruno's child's perspective is completely lost here. While the book (and at times, the film) tells the story from Bruno's point of view as a young person who doesn't understand everything completely, the ballet is brutal in its portrayl of the Holocaust, leaving very little to the imagination. I don't feel like this detracted from the piece whatsoever - you wouldn't notice it unless you were familiar with the book like I was having re-read it a matter of days ago - and with people sobbing physical tears around me, I think that confirms that it didn't for others either, but it left me feeling slightly disappointed as a fan of the tale.

Hitler comes to tea in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

Overall though, the piece is fantastic with the performers for the night being undeniably spectacular. Kevin Poeung played Bruno, the young boy who is born into the rich, German family and his portrayal of the niave and easily mislead Bruno worked perfectly. The fluidity of his body was mesmerising in itself and he flew across the stage so easily that I'm convinced he weighs absolutely nothing. In direct contrast, Luke Francis plays Shmuel in a performance that is equally as incredible, but also much 'heavier'. There are many times when Bruno and Shmuel dance an almost identical sequence, but the two of them perform it in beautifully well-considered and different ways: Poeung always remains light and breezy, without a care in the world, while Francis is trying to do the same, but always seems to be weighed down by something else (that something being his current living situation, of course). The rest of the cast are sublime too; I'd go as far as to say that they are faultless.

And if the ballet's aim was to mirror the design of the Miramax movie, then they've certainly succeeded in doing that, too. Mark Bailey's set and costume design is suitably gothic and dark, evoking not only the feeling of death that lingers throughout this play, but also recreating that dingy feeling of a war-time Germany. It's dark, brutal and sinister and I loved it a lot. Daniel de Anrade's choreography is, of course, sublime as well. It cannot be an easy feat to take a story as weighty as this one from screen to stage - especially when the original film is just a lot of talking - but he definitely does a fantastic job with it.

Bruno's mother wonders where her son has gone in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

You might want to make sure you're familiar with the story of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas before you go to the theatre, but otherwise, you're going to have an amazing time. Northern Ballet are doing a fantastic job at making ballet modern, new and accessible for many people across the country, introducing many different young people to the art form as well. If you're a fan of the story or you're just a fan of good theatre or ballet, I wouldn't dare to miss this.

The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas plays again at the Aylesbury Waterside today (tickets), before continuing on a UK tour through to October, with tickets available here

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