Writer: Zana Fraillon
Adapter: S. Shakthidharan
Director: Esther Richardson
Subhi is the first member of his family to be born in the refugee camp in Australia, far from his home with the Rohingyan people in Myanmar. Thus he falls between two worlds. Pilot Theatre’s co-production of The Bone Sparrow with York Theatre Royal successfully presents the two worlds as linked in his dreams and fantasies.
S, Shakthidharan’s adaptation of Zena Fraillon’s novel is extremely loyal to the original. It begins with the Night Sea swirling in Subhi’s imagination and moves on to the harsh reality of the camp. Subhi is devoted to Eli, the older boy who knows his way round, and things move relentlessly towards the ultimate revolt.
Alongside this – and eventually overlapping with it – is the story of Jimmie, the girl from the Outside who appears one night at the fence and strikes up a friendship with Subhi. Finally the two stories meet in the traumatic night when the camp explodes into violence and Jimmie falls sick and needs to be saved.
Subhi’s fantasy world is fully explored. The Duck which he imagines talking to him in the book is given solid form in Jummy Faruq’s pertly knowing performance – the posh accent is debatable! The father he never knew, left behind to die in Myanmar, is a constant in his attempts to understand the world and he is given bodily form on stage. When Subhi reads the story book that Jimmie brings, the world of Oto and Anka is brought to life by figures with giant heads.
All this comes at a price. The Bone Sparrow is too long, at 2 hours 50 minutes (including interval) likely to strain the patience of the teenage audience it is aiming at. Cutting 20 minutes would also sharpen the impact of the play.
Yaamin Chowdhury excels as Subhi, conveying the mixture of bewilderment and excitement in the character, gradually coming to awareness of the reality of the adult world. Mary Roubos, as the voice of freedom, is deprived of the background chapters that explain Jimmie’s character and emerges as something of a fantasy figure. Stand out performances in the cast of eight come from Siobhan Athwal as Subhi’s sister Queenie and Elmi Rashid Elmi as Eli, both fiercely angry at the humiliations they have to endure.
Esther Richardson’s direction finally implodes into a rather melodramatic riot scene, but otherwise keeps a tight grip; Miriam Nabarro’s designs consist mainly of cages, moved around to represent different parts of the camp; and Arun Ghosh’s music unobtrusively builds the atmosphere.
Zana Fraillon wrote of The Bone Sparrow, “I wish this book had never needed to be written.” The same sense of identification with the Rohingya and other refugee peoples fills the play.
Runs until 5th March 2022