Wednesday 2nd March 2022 at York Theatre Royal.
Zara Fraillon’s novel about a young boy born in an Australian detention centre for refugees has been adapted for the stage by S. Shakthidharan – and it’s an adaptation with a keen sense of its own emotive power. Esther Richardson’s direction of this Pilot Theatre production indicates a similar knowing quality; nothing is sacrificed when it comes to laying bare the hardships and the injustice of detention centres imposed upon those fleeing danger, but the outcomes of that generosity are mixed.
Subhi (Yaamin Chowdhury) monitors his height by the “diamond” shapes on the gates which detain him. It’s a striking moment of poignancy which is later paralleled with various revelations of ordinary things that he has never had experience of: a garden; a comfortable bed. He’s lived his entire life as a refugee, detained alongside his Maa (Kiran L. Dadlani), sister Queenie (Siobhan Athwal) and friend Eli (Elmi Rashid Elmi), who also acts as mentor and protector for the boy awaiting the arrival of his father. Chowdhury quickly impresses with his ability to deliver childhood innocence and endearing shyness while also highlighting the vulnerability unique to this kind of childhood trauma – he’s also utterly convincing as Subhi dives into his source of escape: stories.
To navigate his limited existence, Subhi writes, and envelops himself in the liberated world of fiction. At intervals, the action of the present recedes and elements of fantasy arrive on stage. Ben Cowens’ lighting is suitably expressive for the shifting tones of each tale, and these fantasy sequences feature some of the most engaging elements of the production: video sequences (Daniel Denton) of stylised illustrations (Denton; Maha Alomari) provide a backdrop for puppetry (Alison Duddle and Marc Parrett) and subtle, emotive mask work.
The resonance of this story is obvious as we monitor the daily developments in Ukraine – the commentary on refugee experiences is as relevant as ever, and while the key socio-political commentary about detention centres and injustice towards refugees primarily resides with the family (with Siobhan Athwal’s impassioned performance in particular effectively bringing the plight to the fore) here, some pitch-perfect charm and light relief resides with Subhi’s unexpected friendship with local girl Jimmie (Mary Roubos), who turns up at the fence one day. Roubos is a force of nature; demanding and energetic, Jimmie is battling her own, different kind of trauma. From this dynamic we gain moments of comic childish immaturity and bravado alongside a hovering awareness of the tragedy that Subhi’s life experiences have been so indefensibly limited as a consequence of a situation he had no hand in.
It does have to be said that for all its merits, the generosity mentioned earlier creates flaws, too. Act 1 works hard to capture the atmosphere of the detention centre and the various relationship dynamics playing out, but devotes too much time to those establishing elements and frequent shifts between settings weighs down the action. Miriam Nabarro’s shape-shifting set design is on one hand fantastic, shifting smoothly between areas of the camp with a few swift movements of gates and fences. But a sense of laboured action is tied up with those shifts; the set is stylistically and logistically effective, but too-frequent transitions utilising it are enough to stall proceedings. So, engagement wanes, and although the tale is considerably more engaging come the second act, it’s hard to shake off the sense of needing greater pace and a little trimming down overall.
Ultimately, there’s plenty to appreciate here, and in truth, The Bone Sparrow is at its best as stage work when it doubles down on the illuminating interactions between the two innocents and when it throws itself fully into those fantasy sequences. Highlighting refugee experiences is successfully at the heart of this piece, but over-generosity towards establishing elements and creating atmosphere gets in the way of telling a story which really grips us by the shoulders for the duration.