Review: Northern Ballet's 'The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas' at the West Yorkshire Playhouse

Adam Bruce

  • OnStage United Kingdom Critic

As I’ve followed Northern Ballet over the last few years of my theatre reviewing, I’ve become increasingly fascinated and excited by the ways in which they tell stories. I’ve been surprised at some of their recent adaptations, having never thought it possible to see the stories their ballets are adapted from materialise on stage in such a unique way. One such narrative is that of John Boyne’s acclaimed novel The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas – yet, I found myself taking my seat in the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Quarry Theatre and preparing to immerse myself in Northern Ballet’s latest adaptation, choreographed by Daniel de Andrade.

The ballet loosely follows the action of Boyne’s original novel: set during the Holocaust, an SS Commandant (Javier Torres) moves with his family to his new post outside of Auschwitz. While there, his son Bruno (Kevin Poeung) meets a young Jewish boy named Shmuel (Filippo di Vilio) and the two bond from opposite sides of the concentration camp’s fence. Meanwhile, the cruel Lieutenant Kotler (Sean Bates) flirts with Bruno’s younger sister Gretel (Antoinette Brooks-Daw) and his mother (Hannah Bateman). Overseeing all of this with a watchful eye spectre of Adolf Hitler himself, The Fury (Mlindi Kulashe), who manipulates the characters throughout this poignant and timeless tale.

What follows is a beautifully executed, mesmeric series of vignettes that provide an insight into the lives of Boyne’s characters. Northern Ballet are, as usual, nothing short of exceptional as they gracefully bring Boyne’s novel to live. Daniel de Andrade’s choreography is striking, almost eerily poetic against the backdrop of one of the worst events in human history. The talented ensemble of dancers are imbued with such a poeticism; their emotions are carefully mapped out as they elegantly navigate the twists and turns of the narrative, ultimately crafting an image of two alternate sides of human life vying for escape.

The whole company work exceptionally well together and you can clearly see every dancer’s desire to tell the story clearly and concisely, allowing them to truly command their choreography and bring the narrative to life. The main characters and dancers in the piece masterfully inhabit and execute their roles; whether it’s Poeung’s  and Brooks-Daw’s energetic representations of children naïve to their historic period, or Kulashe’s terrifyingly watchable portrayal of one of humanity’s greatest evils, the whole company truly excel in this piece.

Northern Ballet are undoubtedly masters of commanding all of their pieces’ scenographic aspects, and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is no exception. Their dancers inevitably and essentially become physical parts of the production, who work in tandem with Gary Yershon’s haunting music. Interestingly, his compositions never seem to settle down, and provide a sense of voyeuristic uneasiness as we cannot help but become entranced by the elegant images Northern Ballet conjure up out of Boyne’s text. Such compositions show careful acknowledgment of the source text, and display absolute mastery in generating the piece’s tone and mood.

Completing the scenography and allowing for the ensemble to tell their stories is Mark Bailey’s set and costume design. The two elements together are at once cold and rigid, gorgeous and nostalgic. We’re brought firmly into a time of a ridiculous meritocracy where rank and social strata is everything, juxtaposed with the images of childhood innocence, including tyre swings and endless corridors and outside spaces crying out to be explored. Tim Mitchell’s lighting design completes the production triangle, utilising a palette of cold greys and icy blues offset by occasional warmth to enhance the piece’s complex emotional depth.

This new adaptation of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is exciting and haunting, and gives new life to a modern literary classic. With stunning choreography and a masterful command of storytelling, this is one Northern Ballet piece I’d highly recommend.


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