Seeing asylum through a child’s eyes in Pilot Theatre’s The Bone Sparrow premiere

Yaamin Chowdhury in rehearsal for his role as refugee Subhi in Pilot Theatre’s world premiere of The Bone Sparrow

AFTER racism in Noughts & Crosses and gang culture in Crongton Knights, York company Pilot Theatre now address immigration and asylum seekers in The Bone Sparrow.

The world premiere opens tomorrow (25/2/2022) at York Theatre Royal, Pilot’s partners in the third in a series of co-productions with Derby Theatre, Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, and Mercury Theatre, Coventry.

Pilot artistic director Esther Richardson directs Australian playwright S. Shakthidharan’s adaptation of children’s author Zana Fraillon’s story of a Rohingya refugee boy who has spent his entire life living in a detention centre in Australia.

Directing a cast of eight, who have been rehearsing in a bubble in the De Grey Rooms and taking lateral flow tests every second day, Esther says: “It’s the biggest project we’ve done since the start of the pandemic, with a team of 12 on the road – the cast and four stage managers – for the tour.

“This show was already on the slate to do in 2022, and we just thought ‘let’s do it’ as we really believe in the importance of the project because how we treat migrants is so topical.

“Immigration and racism are very important subjects, as we ask searching questions about who we are as a country if we’re not going to support those who are fleeing their homes to seek a better life – whereas before Brexit we were seen as a nation that did accept asylum seekers.”

In The Bone Sparrow, refugee Subhi is born in an Australian permanent detention centre after his mother fled her violent homeland. Behind the fences, his imagination grows as he grows, until bursting at the limits of his world. 

One night, Jimmie, a scruffy, impatient girl, appears from the other side of the wires, bringing with her a notebook written by the mother she lost. Unable to read it, she relies on Subhi to unravel her own family’s mysterious and moving history. Will Subhi and Jimmie find a way to freedom as their tales unfold?

“The play is set in Australia, where the system for asylum seekers is horrendous, and it’s the one that [Home Secretary] Priti Patel is talking of implementing here,” says Esther.

“The play seeks to raise awareness about detention centres and how people are treated, but it’s also a story of the power of imagination for a boy who is born in a detention centre but has this relentlessly optimistic way of seeing the world through that imagination.

Pilot Theatre artistic director Esther Richardson

“That’s an important metaphor for everyone, but especially young people, as we come out of the pandemic and those lockdowns.”

The role of Subhi will be played by Yaamin Chowdhury, who says: “I always used to say that kids ‘play pretend’, but I didn’t ‘play pretend’; I ‘play believe’. That’s how Subhi resonates with me.

“Then, doing plays that are political, especially this boy, carrying the story, being the hero of the story, I feel like I’m the custodian of people who are disenfranchised, which is important, no matter what geographical world a story is set in.”

Subhi is 12, Yaamin, 23. “Tapping into my inner child, and a child’s curiosity, is the best way to play this character, and I have to be true to every moment, every stimuli, I can be.

“That can be hard sometimes, when remembering that I can look at the world differently, whereas Subhi can only do so by looking at the outside world through the fence’s diamond shapes.

“A lot of people are hermetically sealed from Subhi’s world, and it’s the harsh reality that seeing is believing only when confronted by his story, but that’s the journey we have to take educate people about the sensitive issues of what’s going on in these detention centres for anyone seeking asylum.”

Esther rejoins: “Subhi has never been able to see the sea, for example, so he has to imagine what the sea looks like as he only has people’s stories to draw on. He’s driving his older sister mad by always asking her what she remembers of living in Burma.”

Just as Subhi uses his imagination, so must the audience. “Theatre is about us doing that,” says Esther. “It’s the human act of profound connection with a story that enables us to empathise or project on to a character to understand someone in a way that only theatre can do.”

Yaamin picks up that point. “Experiencing a play, someone’s story, can change someone, and it’s good to have that feeling that if we have changed someone, we’ve done something right,” he says.

From tomorrow, let the power of theatre meet the power of the imagination at York Theatre Royal.

Pilot Theatre presents The Bone Sparrow at York Theatre Royal, tomorrow (25/2/2022) until March 5, then on tour until April 2. Box office: 01904 623568 or at

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