Stories are powerful. That’s the essential premise of Zana Fraillon’s 2016 novel, written to spotlight the experiences of child refugees. As Pilot Theatre adapts The Bone Sparrow, with the nationality and borders bill going through parliament, such stories are as necessary as ever.
For Fraillon’s characters, stories are survival. Young protagonist Subhi (Yaamin Chowdhury) is a “limbo kid”, born in an Australian detention centre. He and his family are Rohingya Muslims, being held indefinitely after fleeing violence and persecution. Subhi endures this bleak environment by escaping into his imagination. One night, he meets Jimmie (Mary Roubos), a girl on the other side of the fence with a notebook full of stories left behind by her late mother.
Esther Richardson’s production effectively conveys the grinding monotony of life in captivity, in which one day bleeds into the next. The towering fences of Miriam Nabarro’s set are manoeuvred into multiple configurations, suggesting the many featureless spaces of the detention centre – all of them contained by metal and barbed wire. Only when the two children read Jimmie’s mother’s stories do these barriers briefly recede.
But the show struggles to make this harsh reality theatrically compelling. In S Shakthidharan’s uneven adaptation, the narrative remains novelistic rather than dramatic. Scenes lack forward momentum, while the various subplots often feel out of balance. And for a piece made for younger audiences, there’s a surprising lack of clarity to the storytelling.
There are some striking visual sequences and some lovely moments between Subhi and Jimmie. Overall, though, The Bone Sparrow makes a clumsy transition from page to stage. Stories are indeed powerful – it’s just a shame this one isn’t told more engagingly.