Theatre review: The Kite Runner, Theatre Royal, Brighton Festival

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It was always going to be a tall order bringing Khaled Hosseini’s mega-selling 2003 novel about friendship, betrayal and exile to the stage.

The book spans two continents and three decades, and is set amid bitter war and upheaval in modern Afghanistan. Giles Croft’s production, adapted by Matthew Spangler whose script was given the nod by Hosseini himself, has gone some way in streamlining the narrative while remaining true to the story. But this comes at the expense of both the broader political picture and the source material’s emotional punch. The violence at the heart of this tale is barely felt.

Ben Turner plays Amir, the son of a prosperous Kabul businessman, who, as a boy, hides while Hassan (a warm and wide-eyed Farshid Rokey), his best friend and the Hazaran son of his father’s servant, is brutally raped by a Pashtun thug. Overwhelmed by his own cowardice, Amir frames his erstwhile playmate for theft, forcing Hassan and his father to leave Kabul in disgrace. Within a year, the Russian tanks have arrived, prompting Amir and his father (Emilio Doorgasingh) to flee and find a new home in America.

Turner has his work cut out here: as well as playing Amir from a seven-year-old through to adulthood, he must also fill in the parts of the picture that this modest staging cannot accommodate, from his life as a privileged Pashtun in a socially segregated city and the shock of a Russian invasion to his new life as a relative pauper in liberal, early-Eighties San Francisco. His first-person narration never lets up, and frequently leaves the rest of the cast looking oddly mute. Turner valiantly forges forward, skillfully conveying the guilt that drips from Amir’s pores, all the while retaining the air of an actor sprinting towards the finish line.

Occasionally, there is pause for reflection. The novel’s great declaration of love and loyalty, first spoken by Hassan to Amir – “for you, a thousand times over” – briefly makes time stand still. The kite-flying episodes are staged simply and beautifully, using projections on billowing sheets, the whistling of wind and an ever-present tabla player. These are the scenes that stay with you, the kites soaring and diving as the characters tread a bumpy path towards redemption. It’s here that The Kite Runner really flies.

Until 25th May then touring

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