It's a good title for a game of charades: the only problem, now, being to decide whether it is a book, a movie or a ballet. John Boyne’s 2006 novel – allegedly written in less than three days, in a torrent of frantic caffeine-reliant, sleepless drafting – led to a film, released just two years’ after the novel’s publication, directed by Mark Herman, slavishly following Boyne’s narrative; and, now, at director David Nixon’s behest, his artistic associate, Daniel de Andrade, has turned the film into a new full-length work for Northern Ballet.

Filippo di Vilio (Shmuel) and Matthew Koon (Bruno) in <i>The boy in the Striped Pyjamas</i> © Emma Kauldhar
Filippo di Vilio (Shmuel) and Matthew Koon (Bruno) in The boy in the Striped Pyjamas
© Emma Kauldhar

Before going on to comment on this work, in particular, let me reflect upon the prodigious output of Northern Ballet. The Boy in Striped Pyjamas is the company’s second full-length world première of the year, following Kenneth Tindall’s hugely successful Casanova; and another is to follow - in September - with Nixon’s own new version of The Little Mermaid. Last year, the company launched two spectacular new works: Jonathan Watkins’ 1984 (which won Best Classical Choreography in the 2016 National Dance Awards) and Cathy Marston’s Jane Eyre (also nominated for the same award). No other company in Western Europe, let alone the UK, comes close to this level of inventiveness for new narrative work; and the dance critics in general (the electorate for the NDAs) are clearly convinced that Nixon and his other choices for Northern Ballet choreography are delivering significant quality to match this prolific quantity in new ballets (usually on familiar stories or themes). It is an ongoing achievement worthy of note.      

Unsurprisingly, this ballet has evoked the same general criticism as the book and the film in terms of its perceived lack of realism. There are arguments about whether any nine-year-old Jewish boys survived for more than a few days in Auschwitz and – if there were any that did – it is inconceivable that an inmate, however young, could have developed a friendship with the camp commandant’s son without anyone knowing; nor that he could simply put on a pair of striped pyjamas and crawl under the fence to join his friend.

Holocaust survivors have condemned the story for trivialising genocide and for the implication that some of those involved in running the concentration camps weren’t actually that bad! Without in any way diminishing the strength and legitimacy of such views, I prefer to see Boyne’s work (and, by consequence, that of Herman and de Andrade) as a fable. It’s perhaps a shame that Auschwitz is specifically acknowledged; but the simplicity of evil being seen through the eyes of the innocent – on both sides of the barbed wire – has a poignancy that is worthy of artistic exploration.

That said, there are many aspects of Northern Ballet’s production, which border the distasteful. The flirtatious pas de deux between Lieutenant Kotler (Sean Bates) and the Camp Commandant’s daughter, Gretel (Antoinette Brooks-Daw) – he in full SS regalia, she in a chintzy dress – seemed unfortunately reminiscent of Springtime for Hitler; the fictitious musical in Mel Brooks’ The Producers. In any event, Gretel supposedly being 13 gave her burgeoning romance with the SS officer a nauseating side-effect; and, to make matters worse, Kotler then seduces her mother (Hannah Bateman).  

Worst of all is the spiritual reflection of Hitler (the Führer) as The Fury (Mlindi Kulashe), a kind of tribal character, dressed in what appears to be black rags adorned with gas mask canisters. It’s a horrible representation of Boyne’s affectation of the young Bruno’s naïve interpretation of the word “Führer” (he also mis-hears Auschwitz as “Out-With”). But, even these narrative stomach-turners pale into insignificance against the mediocrity of Gary Yershon’s score, which seemed incapable of breaking away from being instantly forgettable incidental music. In his programme note, Yershon explains his reasoning for using pre-tonal, modal music, which is ‘heard in relation to a root-note, often heard as a drone’, which is exactly as I heard the score for most of Act one and much of Act two.  

The best of this production came with de Andrade’s choreography, which made the most of creating believable characters, albeit in unbelievable situations, superbly portrayed through the dance theatre talents of these excellent dancers, amongst whom Javier Torres (as the strangely-conflicted commandant), Bateman, Bates and Brooks-Daw stood out. The most difficult roles have to be those of the two boys and it is strongly to their credit that Matthew Koon (Bruno) and Filippo Di Vilio (Shmuel) were utterly convincing as these youngsters. Congratulations should also go to Mark Bailey for excellent set and costume designs, which were effective even on this tiny, heavily-raked stage of the Richmond Theatre.

All-in-all, I don’t think that this new ballet meets the exacting standards set by recent Northern Ballet productions – The Great Gatsby, 1984, Jane Eyre or Casanova – but it is, nonetheless, a worthy attempt to set a challenging and now well-known story into dance theatre; and it joins a growing and popular repertoire for this hard-working and excellent Northern Powerhouse of ballet.