Fresh from its UK tour, Pilot Theatre’s soul-searchingly superb The Bone Sparrow left me weeping at Theatre Peckham
“It’s important what stories we choose to tell”
In a weekend where the great and good flocked to imagined future US history noodlings at the Old Vic, it was instructive to go a little deeper into South London to focus on real humanity, something happening right here and now – the global refugee crisis. Finishing up its UK tour at Theatre Peckham, Pilot Theatre’s The Bone Sparrow is a co-production with York Theatre Royal, Derby Theatre, the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry and Mercury Theatre, Colchester and it absolutely melted my cold, tired heart, affecting me far more than I ever expected.
Based on an award-winning children’s novel by Zana Fraillon, S Shakthidharan’s adaptation focuses on Subhi, a Rohingya boy born in a refugee detention camp in Australia where the sanctuary his family sought hasn’t quite materialised. It’s the only world he’s ever known so he’s relied on the power of storytelling to take him beyond the barbed wire that encloses him. But when he meets Jimmie, a local girl at the fence’s edge one night, the possibilities of his world start to expand while on the edge of his understanding, his older sister and brother-in-arms are agitating for their basic human rights.
Esther Richardson’s production may be aimed at younger audiences but there’s so much here that should be appreciated and heard by people of all ages. Even a theatricalised version of refugee existence can hit home with resounding, appalling truths. There being fewer pairs of shoes in the camp than refugees, the shameful paucity of the food provided, the chilling power exercised by unscrupulous guards, how a boy can have lived for 10-some years and never known anything but camp life. In contemporary society, how we let this pass as acceptable and indulge parts of a political class and a media that still claims it is too much is morally indefensible, particularly with the urgency faced now by those from Afghanistan, Ukraine and beyond.
And what, The Bone Sparrow does is to show how humanity does endure, how the smallest human connections allow for survival. Yaamin Chowdhury’s limbo kid Subhi is boyishly appealing as his innate curiosity (his discovery of the joys of hot chocolate is wonderful) comes up against his growing consciousness (voiced by a duck, of course!). Devesh Kishire is superb in all his roles but especially as the kindest of the guards, Mary Roubos impresses as Jimmie whose dyslexia means she relies on Subhi to retell her late mother’s stories, Elmi Rashid Elmi equally stands out as Somali pal Eli and Siobhan Athwal is stunningly powerful as sister Queenie, forced to be as much parent as sibling.
The pacing is measured rather than energetic but for me, this felt ideal as it inured us to the harsh realities of daily life here, making the small kindnesses that happen hit home harder. And it also means that the storytelling scenes when Subhi and Jimmie’s imaginations transcend the fences carry an extraordinary power, striking puppetry transporting us along with them. Miriam Nabarro’s design is flexibly effective and when silhouetted by Ben Cowen’s lighting, provides one of the most starkly powerful onstage images I’ve seen all year. My eyes wept, my soul soared, The Bone Sparrow completely won me over.