REVIEW: The best and worst of humanity shown in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas at Royal & Derngate, Northampton

Sam Peterson as Shmuel and Cameron Duncan as Bruno
Sam Peterson as Shmuel and Cameron Duncan as Bruno

The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, based on the best-selling novel by John Boyne, is now playing at The Royal and Derngate Theatre, Northampton until Saturday March 6.

The story of two nine-year-old boys, Bruno a high-ranking German soldier’s son and Shmuel a Polish watchmaker’s son who happens to be Jewish, is set against the sickening backdrop of The Second World War and at the very heart of the Nazis’ reign of terror.

Events are viewed through the boys’ innocent eyes, following them as their friendship grows despite the huge barbed wire fence between them stopping them playing together properly. The final forbidden exploration ends with dire consequences for both boys.

The ‘fable’ begins in Berlin with Bruno’s comfortable family home with mother, father and 14 year old sister Gretel, enjoying life with their glamorous, fun-loving grandmother, a former cabaret superstar still singing despite disapproval from her military minded son.

Normal family life in Berlin is uprooted after a dinner date with Adolf Hitler who personally picks Bruno’s father to take over an extremely important assignment which we soon discover is being the commandant at a concentration camp.

Wanting to keep his family together because it gives a good impression the newly promoted commander moves to a house seemingly in the middle of nowhere which doesn’t please his lonely wife, his bored teenage daughter and lively son Bruno.

Desperate to find friends to play with the inquisitive Bruno sees figures through the distant forest and thinks they would be ideal companions not understanding why they are kept apart by the barbed wire fence or why the other boy, who he sees as exactly the same as him, is wearing striped pyjamas.

As the family breaks apart under the strain of living within the horror, the friendship between the boys, born on the same day but living radically different lives, strengthens.

The production by The Children’s Touring Partnership has been adapted for the stage by Angus Jackson and directed by Joe Murphy. Designed on a revolving circular stage with stark, unyielding, industrial ironwork including rivets is a space which can be transformed from bustling Berlin to the grimly bleak killing fields of the Holocaust using projection and lighting.

Scenes are quickly captioned using projected typewriter text, tapping out the venue for the next action.

The sets are deftly switched from scene to scene most memorably with the wonderful choreography of Bruno’s first exploration to find friends where the looming fence is brought on trapping the tiny figure of Shmuel.

With nearly every scene containing Bruno and many featuring Shmuel much of the work falls on the shoulders of the youngest actors. Cameron Duncan’s portrayal of Bruno is excellent with superb comic timing and convincing wide-eyed innocence. Sam Peterson’s depiction of Shmuel shows him to be war weary beyond his years, baffled by Bruno’s lack of understanding but pleased to be treated like an equal human being again.

Marianne Oldham as Bruno’s mother disintegrates before our eyes into despairing alcoholism and coquettish infidelity. Her husband, played by Phil Cheadle, shows the mundane family man whose day job is far from normal which he treats with the zeal of one who has certainty of cause but which we know is evil and appalling.

Eleanor Thorn as the blossoming teenage Gretel shows her transformation from annoyed and annoying older sister to a radicalised member of the Hitler Youth.

This production always leaves you with nerves jangling as you watch the story unfold, helpless to stop the inevitable heart-wrenching ending.

The ensemble cast take us on a journey showing us the best and the worst of people and although only ‘a fable’ shows us that people, whoever they are and whatever their backgrounds or circumstances can be best friends for life.

The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas runs from Tuesday March 3- Saturday March 7

Tickets from £19 plus transaction fee online or on the phone.

Special performances include Friday March 6 2:30pm which will be audio described and at 7pm for a signed performance.

Please note that this production is recommended for ages 11-plus

For tickets contact the box office on 01604 624811 or email