John Boyne’s novel about two nine-year-old boys who form an unlikely friendship across the barbed wire of Auschwitz won mixed reviews when it was published in 2005. Some couldn’t get past the implausibility of little, interned Shmuel meeting unnoticed with Bruno, the son of the camp commandant. But others praised Boyne’s ability to present a naive child’s eye view of Nazi Germany, and to explore the ways in which even the innocent become culpable in times of collective evil.
The film version met with a similar response. But the issue dogging Daniel de Andrade’s ballet is how to replicate the novel’s child-oriented perspective on stage. Bruno and Shmuel are played by adult dancers, and, in the cast I saw, Kevin Poeung and Luke Francis both gave sensitive performances, the former modulating between hyperactive boyishness, uncomprehending misery and sweet hopefulness, the latter hollowed and flayed by the brutality of his captivity.
Yet inevitably they move and look like men, and, because there’s no apparent way for De Andrade to make this a purely child-centred narrative, its gaps and implausibilities remain glaringly evident.
The ballet works best in evoking the conflicted dynamic of Bruno’s family: the tension between his father – a loving man in a despicable job – and his mother, who is trying but failing to ignore the horrors around her.
Bruno’s sister Gretel, danced by Rachel Gillespie with a convincingly grating teenage sense of entitlement, makes a sharp foil to Bruno, who wants only to wish the war away.
Mark Bailey’s clever designs whisk between scenes of domestic “normality” and the bleak industrial nightmare of the camp, while Gary Yershon’s score, a spare and interestingly unplaceable fusion of folk rhythms and atonal atmospherics, serves the action well.
But there are drastic failures of tone: the preposterously jaunty street scene that sees Jews dancing among a crowd of Aryans or the generic death figure who slithers around the stage, his black leather hood, gas mask and net tights more appropriate to an S&M fetish night.
I wish I’d liked this work more. Northern Ballet are working so hard to reinvigorate their stock of narrative ballets, and the company are dancing so well. But The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas feels like a concept that would have better been left on the page.