Thursday, April 25

Pilot Theatre’s Esther Richardson talks their new production The Bone Sparrow

Pilot Theatre has adapted Zana Fraillon’s The Bone Sparrow for a timely national tour telling the tale of a Rohingya refugee boy Subhi who has spent his entire life living in a detention centre in Australia.

Pilot Theatre’s Artistic Director Esther Richardson will direct an adaption by Shakthi Shakthidharan, who is an award-winning Australian writer, producer, composer and director for screen and stage of Sri Lankan heritage and Tamil ancestry.

In a world dominated by Zoom calls this cross continental production has also been developed in association with Australian Theatre for Young People. Closer to home it has had support of Bradford’s SBC Theatre, a group of creative professionals and artists who are committed to making work with, about and for those seeking sanctuary in the UK and internationally.

Pilot have built a national reputation for creating work for younger audiences supporting them to consider some really challenging issues in the unstable world around them. Our Yorkshire Editor Paul Clarke caught up with Esther to find out more about how The Bone Sparrow was created.

So, what’s The Bone Sparrow all about?

It’s about a boy called Subhi who has been born in a detention centre for refugees in Australia, so he’s lived his whole life in this place.  It’s about the experience of someone who is in that situation, and he has to imagine everything that might be beyond the walls and fences.

It seems inconceivable to any civilised person that a child could grow up only knowing life behind wire fences so how does he cope with being cooped up?

It means that he’s developed this extraordinary imagination which is what makes the story incredible for theatre because it’s about the power of the imagination. It’s about how when we’re in the most difficult circumstances it’s our imagination and our ability to feel hopeful that helps us survive and keep going.

How are you staging this production?

It’s an ensemble piece like all our pieces so it’s got a company of eight, and Subhi is the main character, so we very much follow his story, but another really key character is a girl from outside the camp who comes to the fence, and they develop this friendship. So, it’s got a kind of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas feeling to it in a way, and I would say that the friendship between the two of them is almost the heart of the story

What do you hope this piece will achieve when it goes on tour?

What’s really important about the story is that it’s an opportunity for us to get children and young people thinking about the challenging question of child detainees, and how we treat migrants in general, whatever age they are, but most specifically children and young people which is a global issue.

It’s set down under, but many people who come to this show will have seen harrowing images of frightened people and families on flimsy dinghies.

The story is really wonderfully set in Australia, but obviously the themes are relevant here with current political trends around shifting our attitudes to migrants. In our attitudes to people who are fleeing persecution and making treacherous journeys, for example, across the English Channel to get here to some kind of safety. 

There is another subtext to this story based around why Subhi is being detained in the camp.

Subhi is a boy of Rohingya heritage, and the Rohingya are a group from an area that spans kind of Burma and Bangladesh, and they have been treated appallingly. They’ve ended up having to flee and many of them are in a large camp called Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, but they’re one of the most oppressed groups in the whole of the world. Their story isn’t as well-known as it should be.

How have you made sure that part of the story is authentic?

One of the really important behind the scenes aspects of this project is that we are working with a young man called Sirazul Islam who is Rohingya, and who did himself grew up in a refugee camp in Bangladesh. He lived there until he was 10 or 11 before coming to Bradford, he’s now in his early 20s, and he’s the assistant director on the production.

There’s a lot of fierce debate about immigration in our country so do you hope this story will help people make sense of some of the complexities and the human cost of people fleeing their countries?

The danger at the moment is even in this country we are becoming a slightly less possibly compassionate society when it comes to our understanding of these issues, and actually our knowledge of them. There’s just there’s millions of people who have to flee situations every year, millions of those people are children, and, yes, there are thousands upon thousands of children in exactly the situation that Subhi is in. He’s not a one-off.

It might seem like a pipedream in the current pandemic, but do you think one day The Bone Sparrow will be performed down under?

I know that Australian Theatre for Young People love it, and Shakthi Shakthidharan is a very established Australian playwright with a really significant reputation, so I’d be really surprised if it doesn’t happen in Australia. In fact, I’m sure that it will it’s really just a question of when and how that happens.

The Bone Sparrow will be the third co-production between Pilot Theatre, Derby Theatre, Belgrade Theatre Coventry, Mercury Theatre Colchester, and York Theatre Royal who in 2018 formed a new partnership to develop theatre for younger audiences.


8th – 12th March – Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds

Box Office: 01325 701521

15th – 19th March – Derby Theatre

Box Office: 01332 593939

22nd – 26th March – Belgrade Theatre, Coventry

Box Office: 02476553055    

29th March – 2nd April – Mercury Theatre, Colchester

Box Office: 01206 573948

6th – 23rd April – Peckham Theatre

Box Office: 020 7708 5401