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Review of The Bone Sparrow at Theatre Peckham

The Bone Sparrow is a novel by Zana Fraillon which has been adapted for the stage by S Shakthidharan expressly for this production by Pilot Theatre.

Born in an Australian permanent detention centre after his Rohingya Muslim mother fled Myanmar, life behind the fence is all Subhi has never known. Most of the play appears to take place when he is about twelve years old and meets Jimmie, a scruffy, impatient girl the other side of the wires, who is unable to read her mother’s notebook and relies on Subhi to do so for her, unravelling her own family’s history.

Yaamin Chowdhury as Subhi in The Bone Sparrow. Photo: Robert Day
Yaamin Chowdhury as Subhi in The Bone Sparrow. Photo: Robert Day

Subhi is played very believably by Yaamin Chowdhury, who convinces us of his age, gets as much pathos into the story as the script allows him and is always watchable. Jimmie is much more strongly written, and is in the safe hands of Mary Roubos, herself an Australian. She has the wide-eyed innocence that the role demands and seems to be given more opportunity to grow as a character during the course of the play.

Most of the other actors are asked to portray several parts, Siobhan Athwal being particularly successful as Queenie, Subhi’s sister, and Elmi Rashid Elmi equally so as a compassionate soldier, even if the role is stereotyped, as is that of the other “’Australian anti-immigrant‘ soldier, Mackenzie Scott.

The most imaginative element of the whole production is the use of puppets, designed and made by Alison Duddle and Marc Parrett. These vary in size from a sparrow and a duck (Subhi’s imaginary friend, though we don’t know why) to two horrific, twice life-size, Myanmar soldiers with facial expressions liable to give younger members of the audience nightmares. The director, Esther Richardson, must be congratulated for the inventive way these have been dovetailed into the whole production – she clearly realised that Shakthidharan’s wordy, rather plodding, script, called for something that the young people for whom the play is presumably intended would remember long afterwards.

The steel frame and wire netting set is the brainchild of Miriam Nabarro. Although effective and easy to tour, the continual opening and shutting of the frame gets a bit tedious, especially as some scenes are very brief. Clever lighting, giving the impression of the intense heat of which we are continually told, is by Ben Cowens and video design, including a superb rainstorm, is by Daniel Denton.

I understand that Fraillon’s novel is recommended for use in KS3 English as well as for GCSE Drama, and the subject matter certainly gives many opportunities for discussion, but the play is inclined to meander, the most successful part being the first half of Act Two which has a terrific climax. Unfortunately, this is followed by a long epilogue in which all the threads are tied up, but this really is an anti-climax and needs to be tightened up: it was during these slow final 20 minutes that nearly all the young people around me, having been a wonderful audience up until then, got out their mobile phones!

However, there is much to admire in this production, especially, as I have said, the puppetry and acting, which, as so often, almost succeeds in making one believe that the play is better than it is.

It is well worth a trip to Peckham just to experience their nearly new theatre, the work they do with and for young (and other!) people in the borough, plus the VERY helpful, friendly, FOH staff, all of whom have been inspired by what they have learned through the plethora of workshops and productions on offer.

The Bone Sparrow runs throughout the school Easter Holidays and beyond until 23 April.

3 Star Review

Review by John Groves

Subhi is a refugee. Born in an Australian permanent detention centre after his mother fled the violence of a distant homeland, life behind the fences is all he has ever known. But as he grows, his imagination gets bigger too, until it is bursting at the limits of his world.

The most vivid story of all, however, is the one that arrives one night. Jimmie, a scruffy, impatient girl appears from the other side of the wires, and brings a notebook written by the mother she lost. Unable to read it, she relies on Subhi to unravel her own family’s love songs and tragedies.

Subhi and Jimmie might both find a way to freedom, as their tales unfold. But not until each of them has been braver than ever before.

Pilot Theatre won Excellence in Touring at the 2019 UK Theatre Awards. The Bone Sparrow follows the critically acclaimed adaptations of Noughts & Crosses and Crongton Knights.

Co-produced by York Theatre Royal, Belgrade Theatre Coventry, Mercury Theatre Colchester and Derby Theatre.

The Bone Sparrow cast features:
Yaamin Chowdhury as Subhi
Mary Roubos as Jimmie
Elmi Rashid Elmi as Eli
Jum Faruq as Duc
Kiran L Dadlani as Maa
Siobhan Athwal as Queenie
Devesh Kishore as Harvey/ Ba/ Nasir
Mackenzie Scott as Beaver

Original novel by Zana Fraillon
Adapted by award-winning playwright S. Shakthidharan
Suitable for ages 11+

The Bone Sparrow
7 – 23 April 2022

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  • John Groves

    John Groves studied singing with Robert Easton and conducting with Clive Timms. He was lucky enough to act in the British premiere of a Strindberg play at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe more years ago than he cares to remember, as well as singing at the Royal Opera House - once! He taught drama and music at several schools, as well as examining the practical aspects of GCSE and A level drama for many years. For twenty five years he has conducted a brass band as well as living on one of the highest points of East Sussex surrounded by woodland, deer, foxes and badgers, with kites and buzzards flying overhead.

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