Northern Ballet has a reputation for pioneering contemporary, narrative ballet, but this may be its most challenging subject to date. The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas has been a book and later a film, both of which have seen their fair share of controversy.

In a tale praised and criticised in equal measure, nine year old Bruno, son of a Nazi commander, befriends Shmuel, a Jewish boy, through the fence of an extermination camp who wears what looks like pyjamas. When Shmuel's father goes missing inside the camp Bruno slips into the camp to help find him, with inevitably tragic results.

To appreciate anything of the story, belief must be suspended. Children of Shmuel's age would have been executed on arrival at the death camps and a boy like Bruno, educated in Berlin and son of a Nazi commander, would surely have had pre-formed hatred towards Jews. John Boyne's story asks its audience to believe in the innocence of children, of a friendship beyond any boundaries society imposes on them.

The Holocaust is always an incredibly sensitive subject to tackle. Fictionalising real tragedy is extremely risky, but Daniel de Andrade's production more or less manages to convey tragedy without over romanticising the story within or giving into melodrama.

De Andrade's choreography often uses the fence between the boys as a mirror; their actions reflecting each other as they meet and play. There is often great poignancy in the childlike moves. In contrast, some of the movement elsewhere is somewhat overstated; Nazi officers stomp and kick their legs out in a goosestep, prisoners in the concentration camp clutch their stomachs in hunger and stagger with weakness.

Italian dancer Filippo Di Vilio plays a hungry and desperate Shmuel; his movements are suitably heavy within the camp, but become noticeably lighter when he is with Bruno.

With previous form as Billy in Billy Elliot, Matthew Koon is a sympathetic Bruno. He has a particular lightness of foot as he manages to convey a childish enthusiasm for life. This is well matched by Antoinette Brooks-Daw who plays Bruno's elder sister Gretel.

Some characterisation is not subtle. 'The Fury', as the representation of Hitler, slithers around the stage. A snake-like figure in a haunting black gas mask and tight black bodysuit, he is more fantasy baddie, than a reminder of the very real human character. Whatever your opinion on the characterisation, Mlindi Kulashe is the standout performer in this role; his body is incredibly fluid and his movements sinuous as he slithers around the stage, lurking in blackness and overpowering his victims with his dark power.

Gary Yershon's music is distinctly lacking in variety. The danger of the Nazis is often shown with a soundtrack more suited to film noir; jarring violins screech and piano keys jangle with blasts of warning from the horn. However tragic the story, the music fails to hit the level of poignancy and sadness required.

Tim Mitchell's lighting is particularly effective; as the boys meet and play, the sky becomes brighter and the world a more positive place and is then plunged back into darkness as reality hits. The shards of light cast during the scenes of the Nazi commandant's office are hauntingly subtle, especially the highlighting of the foreboding Reichsadler hanging down from the rafters.

This ballet is another bold and brave production by Northern Ballet, yet it is the story that remains in the mind, rather than the production itself.

The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas is at Richmond Theatre until 7 June and then touring

Photo Credit: Emma Kauldhar

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From This Author Aliya Al-Hassan

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