There’s much to appreciate about Homing Birds, Rukhsana Ahmad’s new play, marking her return to Kali Theatre which she co-founded. Her slick narrative encompasses home, war, politics, family, women’s rights and trauma – an intricately connected cluster that maps the life of Saeed: sent away from Afghanistan as a boy and adopted by a British couple, he returns as a doctor to find his sister, Nazneen (Mona Khalili).
Flowing between Saeed’s past and present, vivid and troubling, the writing is insightful and agile. Stage lights flicker in the haze as memories of death and displacement surface. Delicate flutters of pigeons come, both soothing and unsettling. More dualities coexist in Helen Coyston’s two-level set, deconstructed rugs, carved doors through which light pierces, finding a way out of this human maze.
Here’s the thing. Despite the atmospheric design, this can feel like watching a radio play. A spark of the live and urgent eludes.
Some storytelling choices also frustrate. It feels so unlikely that siblings who shared tender years as children would not recognise each other grown. Wider politics eclipse Saeed’s touching personal journey, and the gruesome end of passionate and persuasive politician Raabia (Suzanne Ahmet), is abruptly mentioned, as though we’ve not spent half the play following her.
The performances shine through, and with Helena Bell’s direction come bursts of vibrant energy. Jay Varsani excels as Saeed, tetchy and disjointed from his cardigan-wearing father Michael (John O’Mahony), and bringing energising physicality as his child-self in Kabul, body and voice leaping with life.