Last Updated on 10th April 2022
Tim Hochstrasser reviews The Bone Sparrow adapted by S Shakthidharan based on the novel by Zana Fraillon at Theatre Peckham.
The Bone Sparrow
Pilot Theatre specialise in bringing drama to young people, and this venture, which comes to Peckham after touring York, Coventry and Colchester, does not disappoint. Alongside this reviewer was a full house of teenagers all from the same school, and they sat there in rapt attention throughout, despite a long-running time of over two and a half hours.
This is an Australian adaptation of an Australian novel by Zana Fraillon, which has resonated well beyond the realms of children’s literature since its debut in 2016. The focus of the story is a refugee family of Rohingya Muslims who find themselves marooned in an Australian detention centre. In particular, we see the world through the eyes of Subhi, born in the camp itself and knowing nothing of the world beyond. Conditions are basic if not grim, with poor diet, few activities, and repressive, intermittently brutal, security. Alongside Subhi are his mother, still hoping that her poet-husband may join them; his feisty older sister, Queenie; another detainee, Elmi, who leads black market activity; guards (known as ‘jackets’) some kindly, others brutal; and finally, Jimmie, a girl from outside the camp whom he befriends on the camp perimeter in a way that reminds you of ‘The Boy with the Striped Pyjamas.’
However, it is alternative worlds of hope, fantasy and imaginative projection that lift this story – and the adaptation – away from gritty realism and out of the ordinary. Subhi draws and writes his visions of what the world may be like beyond his own, whether of the sea and what is in it, or the taste of hot chocolate, or simply the power of storytelling as he reads for illiterate Jimmie stories written by her late mother. Real friendships and possibilities for change are created out of stories snatched from the air. The finest aspects of this production (and perhaps explaining its hold over its teenage audience) lie in the way in which these alternative visions are realised and projected.
Most notable in this regard are the remarkable puppets devised by Alison Duddle. There is a remarkably posh and loquacious duck, voiced by Jummy Faruq, which acts as Subhi’s inner voice of caution – rather like one of Philip Pullman’s daemons. A whale flutters in during the final minutes; and for the tale of Oto and Anka, a story within a story, larger-than-life but very humane humans are matched with fearsome, steeplingly tall soldiers, perhaps owing something to the more fantastical monsters of ‘The Lord of the Rings.’ An imaginative challenge has met an equally imaginative response.
This is an ensemble production with all the cast having to pitch in as stagehands quite apart from playing multiple roles in the action. However, some performances stand out. Yaamin Chowdhury as Subhi finds the right blend of innocence and wonder, but also develops empathy and savvy as the play progresses. Siobhan Athwal as his sister Queenie finds a balancing toughness to keep any trace of sentimentality at bay, though why she has a South African accent escapes me. Elmi Rashid Elmi projects streetwise ingenuity and physical energy as enterprising Eli, and Mary Roubos generates tomboy panache with sudden vulnerability as Jimmie. Devesh Kishore and Mackenzie Scott provide contrasted portraits of the camp guards – the one humane and conciliatory, torn between contradictory priorities, and the other brittle, damaged, replete with menace and violence waiting to breakthrough.
Among the creative team, director Esther Richardson deserves credit for keeping things moving and making sure there is always something of visual interest to go with the dialogue in the overlong sequence of scenes that make up the first half. Designer Miriam Nabarro has done a fine job in creating a flexible set that suggests the multiple areas of the camp through frequently repositioned segments of fencing. At points though, these are banished to the wings to give space for dynamic action and evocation of vistas looking into other imaginative realms.
Overall, this is a very satisfying evening. A final footnote: one advantage of having a mostly school-age audience is that collective audience discipline is enforced. Would that every West End had a Miss Trunchbull declaring to the house at the start of proceedings: ‘Any mobile phones in use this evening will be confiscated!’
The Bone Sparrow is an Orion Children’s Book published by Hachette.