REVIEW: Pilot Theatre’s detention centre tale The Bone Sparrow, York Theatre Royal

Yaamin Chowdhury’s Subhi, the boy dreamer in refugee captivity in Pilot Theatre’s The Bone Sparrow

The Bone Sparrow, Pilot Theatre & York Theatre Royal, at York Theatre Royal *** Performances: 7.30pm tonight and tomorrow; 2pm, 7.30pm, Saturday, then on tour. Box office: 01904 623568 or at Age guidance: 11 plus

ZANA Fraillon’s 2016 Australian detention centre novel, The Bone Sparrow, is rooted in the power of the imagination in brutal circumstances.

S. Shakthidharan, an Australian playwright born in Sri Lanka with Tamil ancestry, retains the importance of imagination in his stage adaptation for York company Pilot Theatre’s world premiere.

Pilot’s pioneering social, cultural and political theatre is targeted at teenage audiences – Leeds Trinity Academy pupils in smartest blazers were seated in the two rows in front of your reviewer, who passed two more excited school groups en route to Thursday afternoon’s matinee – and Shakthidharan and director Esther Richardson have made two bold decisions.

One is to entrust young audiences with taking in all the minutiae of a highly theatrical, if episodic production that runs to Shakespearean lengths, as the clock ticked towards 10.20 from a 7.30pm start on press night.

Australian writer S Shakthidharan

The other is to place so much faith in imagination, in tandem with our need for stories as a mechanism for survival in the face of adversity, in a piece full of symbolism, from the bone sparrow of the title to a talkative, comical, “riduckulous” duck that looks like Shakespeare (should that be a Duck Bill Platypus?).

All is seen through a 12-year-old child’s eyes, albeit with the writer’s secondary voice ever present too. That means not everything is easy to comprehend, which in turns makes Richardson’s production more challenging for younger audience members, although those Leeds schoolchildren were fully attentive throughout.

Could the storytelling have been clearer? Could the running time have been shorter? Yes to both questions, and potentially, a snappier running time would have demanded a more concise, less florid form of storytelling.

Yet, to counter that instinctive reaction, there is a freedom to the storytelling that matches the birds seen in flight so often in Daniel Denton’s beautiful video designs and illustrations. Not everything, however, lifts off from the page amid the text-heavy burden of subplots.

The 12-year-old boy is Subhi (Yaamin Chowdhury), who was born in an Australian refugee camp and remains a limbo kid there with his mother (Kiran L Dadlani) and his firebrand sister Queenie (Siobhan Athwal), their persecuted Rohingya Muslim family having fled the violence of Myanmar without the father.

Elmi Rashid Elmi’s Eli, left, Yaamin Chowdhury’s Subhi and Siobhan Athwal’s Queenie in a heated scene in The Bone Sparrow

The play begins in Subhi’s world of his imagination, as he is shown forever making drawings in his little book, as depicted in Denton’s backdrops.

Suddenly the fences close all around him in Miriam Nabarro’s design, and the daily dirge of a future constantly on hold is mirrored in the menu of endless porridge meals and confinement to sleeping on steel beds in tents.

One guard, Harvey (Devesh Kishore) strives to be considerate, even helpful; another, the over-assertive Beaver (Mackenzie Scott), calls the refugees by their numbers only and is a racist thug and a bully, clashing with Elmi Rashid Elmi’s freedom-craving Eli.

Into the story – leading to comparisons with The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas – comes the outsider, Jimmie (Mary Roubos), an illiterate but inquisitive girl from up the hill who wants Subhi to read the stories collated in her late mother’s notebook.

As with Subhi’s bursts of imagination – where he conjures the seas he has never seen – these stories are told with the camp barriers removed and the mythical characters of newly-weds Oto and Anka represented by oversized puppet heads, miming the horrors of facing another menacing regime.

The girl from the outside: Mary Roubos’s Jimmie

There is humour and mystery, escape and discovery, drama and danger in this account of a burgeoning friendship, captured so well by Chowdhury and Roubos, as it is interwoven with the grim realities of camp life.

Is Jimmie real or pulled from Subhi’s dreamscapes? The way that Roubos plays her at first makes you wonder, another plus to her engaging performance opposite Chowdhury’s Subhi, a resilient boy bursting with restless thoughts, undaunted by authority and stymied circumstances.

For comic relief, look no further than puppeteer Jummy Faruq and his Duck, as opinionated as Ray Alan’s indiscreet Lord Charles.

Yet like Arun Ghosh’s score, that comic relief takes a back seat. Such is the overpowering shadow of this week’s plight of fleeing Ukrainians seeking sanctuary in Poland and beyond, and the intolerant message given by Brexit and now the Nationality and Borders bill over here, when there is such need for a common humanity, heightened by pandemic times.

Alas the bitter reality is that it will take more than a captive boy’s imagination or a novel to trigger change, but everything must start with highlighting what’s wrong and positing how we could make a better world.

Review by Charles Hutchinson

Yaamin Chowdhury’s Subhi and fellow Pilot Theatre cast members, against the backdrop of Daniel Denton’s video design, in Pilot Theatre’s co-production with York Theatre Royal, Derby Playhouse, Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, and Mercury Theatre, Colchester

How Australian writer Shakthi and York’s Pilot Theatre came together to tell Subhi’s tale from inside a detention centre

Yaamin Chowdhury as Rohingya refugee Subhi in Pilot Theatre’s The Bone Sparrow. Picture: Robert Day

YORK company Pilot Theatre’s world premiere of The Bone Sparrow is international, not only in its subject matter of asylum seekers but in its journey from page to stage.

Artistic director Esther Richardson and her cast have ‘met’ playwright S. Shakthidharan only on Zoom, although he does plan to travel from Australia to Britain later during the tour of a co-production mounted with York Theatre Royal, Derby Theatre, Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, and Mercury Theatre, Colchester.

Shakthi, as he is known for short and on the corner of his Zoom screen for this interview, is a writer, storyteller, composer and film and theatre director-producer, from western Sydney, with Sri Lankan heritage and Tamil ancestry.

“The commission came from Esther. She contacted me out of the blue,” says Shakthi. “She’d heard about the play I wrote and premiered in Australia in 2019 [Counting And Cracking], and I think she’d read the script.”

This was no ordinary debut play. Staged by Belvoir and Co-Curious at the 2019 Sydney and Adelaide Festivals, his script won the Victorian Premier’s Literature Prize and the New South Wales Premier’s Nick Enright Prize for Playwriting; the three-hour epic production won seven Helpmann and three Sydney Theatre Awards.

“Esther had been interested in adapting Zana Fraillon’s book for some time and so she approached me,” recalls Shakti. “When I read it, I immediately connected with it because I’d worked with a lot of asylum seekers in Australia and was familiar with the different types of stories that were being told.”

In the story by children and young adults’ novelist Fraillon, Subhi is a 12-year-old Rohingya refugee boy, born in an Australian permanent detention centre after his mother fled the violence of her distant homeland. Life behind the fences is all he has ever known, but as he grows, his imagination grows too, until it is bursting at the limits of his world. 

One night, Jimmie, a scruffy, impatient girl, appears from the other side of the wires, bringing 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, but will Subhi and Jimmie both find a way to freedom as their tales unfold?

Mary Roubos as Jimmie in The Bone Sparrow at York Theatre Royal. Picture: Robert Day

“Subhi, the protagonist, lives in the world of his imagination and doesn’t realise what’s going on around him,” says Shakthi. “Instead, he’s lost in his own charming world, and it’s fascinating that he can have such an enchanting world in such a brutal situation.”

By now, Shakthi had been joined on the Zoom screen by his own young son, awoken from his sleep – it was 8.45pm in Sydney – by the sound of voices.

“So often we are beaten down by the world,” says Shakthi. “We reshape ourselves to fit into it. Subhi’s story is different. In The Bone Sparrow this imaginative young boy discovers within himself a strength that will change the world around him.

“It’s a classic coming-of-age story and yet so much more. The Bone Sparrow is by turns a wondrous tale of epic, mythical adventure; a realistic appraisal of what it means to grow up without freedom; and a vision of renewed solidarity across our supposed divisions.”

Jimmie’s story is as significant to Shakthi as Subhi’s tale. “Immigration, asylum and race is such an important issue in Australia, where it has swung elections for 20 years now and changed government policy,” he says.

“What the children’s relationship does is bring out a common humanity within people, unlike so much of the dialogue, both by those who are well meaning and those with no compassion. Subhi and Jimmie’s friendship obliterates all that: they are two kids who develop a love for each other and have a lot of fun together as well.”

Shakthi continues: “It’s a political play but it’s not a didactic one. I love works that present the complexity of humanity, so the central relationship is so important here.

“What wasn’t in the book so much is that it’s a Rohingya Muslim family. In Zana’s story it’s portrayed with a lighter touch, but I’ve been very keen to have the Rohingya community involved in the project.”

Mackenzie Scott, as Beaver, left, and  Elmi Rashid Elmi,  as Eli, in the detention centre in The Bone Sparrow. Picture: Robert Day

To that end, Esther has liaised with the British Rohingya community, based in Bradford and especially with Sirazul Islam, who began the project as a consultant and is now the assistant director. Like Subhi, Sirazul was born into a refugee camp, and he speaks in public about his experiences of being Rohingya.

In addition, the production team has spoken to other Rohingya people and young sanctuary-seekers, who have been consulted on the script. “The play has a stronger sense of that culture now,” says Shakthi.

Reflecting on his own childhood, he says: “I was born in Sri Lanka in 1982; when the riots happened in 1983, it deepened into civil war, and that’s when my family moved to Chandhai in India, hoping to come back to Sri Lanka.

“That’s the thing about war; it can take a while before anyone calls it a war. We moved first to India, then Singapore, then Australia by the time I was three. We never did go back to Sri Lanka. I’m an Australian, with a lot of family in England as the Tamil diaspora spread everywhere.”

Fraillon’s story of Subhi has many resonances for Shakthi. “I understand what it means not to be in your homeland because of your race, and I understand what it means for a relatively small country to descend into violence,” he says.

“Subhi’s tale is one of growing up distanced from his culture, but he reaches a crisis point in his young life where he finds strength in that culture.

“In my case, my parents pushed me into assimilation in Australia, and so I didn’t really connect with my [Tamil] culture until my late-20s.”

Assimilating meant doing things like supporting Steve Waugh’s Australian cricket team, recalls Shakthi. “I would follow what my white Australian mates were doing, whether it was music or sport,” he says.

The Pilot Theatre company on stage at York Theatre Royal in The Bone Sparrow. Picture: Robert Day

“But then you find your own culture is far more sophisticated than you realised, and through all that pain of leaving your own country, now I really appreciate both my Sri Lankan culture and my Australian culture, so that’s a bonus that other people don’t have: being able to look at the world in different ways. That stops you from being pompous.”

Addressing the thorny subject of immigration, detention centres and sanctuary seekers, Shakthi says: “You can talk about this stuff endlessly politically, but the thing I always come back to is thinking: ‘is it fair to make one group a scapegoat for everyone else?’.

“The Australian government thinks that putting one group of people in detention will be a deterrent to others, but what does it say about that one group? We have to find other ways.

“It’s very easy to make people have knee-jerk reactions on this issue – all that talk of ‘taking our jobs and protecting our borders’ – but the success of the UK, USA, Canada and Australia is co-dependent on welcoming people. You can’t have one without the other. Generally, when people come, they work their butts off, doing jobs others aren’t willing to do.

“That’s why Jimmie’s relationship with Subhi is so vital in the story. She doesn’t apply labels to him. She just sees him as a boy and a friend.”

Living in suburban western Sydney, Shakthi is in a community where many migrants have settled. “In its time, it’s had the most diverse population in the world,” he says. “Going for a cup of coffee in the morning, you pass every culture.”

Plenty of cups of coffee later, The Bone Sparrow is up and running at York Theatre Royal. “I’ve had a great deal of fun collaborating with Pilot to develop a grand theatricality for this work and deepen its relationship with the Rohingya community,” says Shakthi. “I hope audiences are as delighted and moved by this story as we were in the process of adapting it.”

Pilot Theatre’s premiere of The Bone Sparrow runs at York Theatre Royal until Saturday, then on tour from March 8 to April 2. York box office: 01904 623568 or at

S. Shakthidharan: Writer, storyteller, composer, director and producer for stage and screen

S. Shakthidharan in profile:

Shakthi is a western Australian writer, producer, composer and director for screen and stage of Sri Lankan heritage and Tamil ancestry. His 2019 debut play, the three-hour epic Counting And Cracking, had a profound effect on the Sri Lankan community in Sydney.

He has a new commission in development with Sydney Festival; a number of plays with Belvoir; a feature film with Felix Media and two new television projects.

He is the artistic director of Kurinji and lead artistic consultant at Co-Curious, a sister company to CuriousWorks, where he was the founder and artistic director from 2003 to 2018.