Review by Sandra Carter

To nine-year-olds, life can be bewildering. Why do adults make you do horrible things, what do their words mean, how can you play and have fun in the midst of their world?

For Bruno and Shmuel, life is more daunting than for most. They are caught in the same harsh world – the holocaust of World War II – but they are on different sides of the barbed wire fence.

In this stage production of the well known novel, we see the dilemmas of war through the eyes of these two boys, Bruno the son of the concentration camp commandant, living in a big house outside the camp, and Shmuel, the Polish Jew imprisoned within.

Bruno has so many questions: why does he have to leave his home and grandma in Berlin for a place where there are no children to play with? Why can’t he go out to explore? And when he peers through the bedroom window, who are all those people beyond the wire wearing striped pyjamas?

Creeping out to the fence, he finds Shmuel, the same age but from a different world. Bruno still asks questions: What time do you eat supper? Why don’t you get different clothes out of your wardrobe? Why don’t you just go back to your old home?

The two young actors have hugely demanding roles to play, but Tuesday night’s pair (there are several pairs as the show tours), Finlay Wright-Stephens (Bruno) and Tom Hibberd (Shmuel), were excellent. Our first sight of Shmuel was a real tear-jerker. We’ve seen Bruno at home, a pampered rich kid, and now he’s faced with this thin waif of a nine-year-old in ill-fitting prison uniform. Shmuel may be hungry and abused, but he’s resilient and open-hearted. He has few questions, few answers, but offers the warm friendship of childhood. The pair’s developing friendship is very moving.

All around, dark forces are at work. Bruno’s father is driven by ambition and Nazi zeal, which is not shared by his wife and mother. Nazi troops appear throughout, either playing roles or providing sinister undertones when they act as scene changers. When Bruno escapes to the woods to play, they act as trees and boulders for him to jump over. The stage setting is simple but effective, with a revolving centre stage providing a change of perspective and subtle images projected onto the backdrop.

The Swan was packed with hundreds of young people on Tuesday night – this is, after all, required reading in many schools and coaches were lined up outside. They were excited before the start, attentive throughout and thoughtful as they trooped out.

Perhaps because of the wide age-range of its audiences, we were told both at the start and at the end of the play that this is a fable, and the climax of the story is portrayed less horrifyingly than it might be. However the play, like the novel, succeeds in taking us once again to an extraordinary period seen through the fresh perspectives of two children who might have experienced it.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas continues at Wycombe Swan until Saturday April 25. Tickets range from £13 to £25, available online at or by calling the ticket office on 01494 512 000.