Khaled Hosseini’s 2003 novel sold 31.5m copies in 60 languages. It was adapted for the screen in 2007 and now it’s been transformed into a seriously good piece of storytelling theatre that takes flight just as the onstage kites do.
This stage adaptation of The Kite Runner – first produced in the US in 2009 and subsequently given its UK premiere in a co-production between Nottingham and Liverpool in 2013 – finally arrives in the West End after two UK tours, and is that rare and magnificent thing: a real sleeper hit. It doesn’t come shouting its attractions – there’s no distracting star casting – but instead Giles Croft’s production captures the heart of the story, and in turn the hearts of its audience, with a quietly impressive, and ultimately overwhelming, theatrical authority.
In this it feels in the tradition of War Horse and could well be the best page-to-stage show since then. It may not be quite as theatrically innovative, but it has a similar integrity that speaks of a real commitment by its creative team to telling this story with an unforced economy that is also full of emotional weight.
Matthew Spangler’s adaptation offers a gripping portrait of two young lives that become inextricably linked – much like Blood Brothers, though here the two boys grow up in the same household in 1970s Kabul, Amir as the son of the affluent widowed father in Afghanistan, Hassan as the son of the father’s trusted Hazara servant.
They learn to walk, read and fly kites at the same time; but their lives will follow very different paths, not just because of the Soviet invasion of their country and the subsequent rise of the Taliban – an act of childhood betrayal that casts a guilty shadow over Amir’s life. It’s also a story of a diaspora, as Amir and his father relocate to California and establish new, very different lives there. Yet it also tells of the moving opportunity Amir unexpectedly has for redemption. and making partial amends for those past wrongs.
The story humanises a very different, unfamiliar cultural clash, and its an important story, too, in the Trump-era of suspicion and hostility towards ‘foreigners’. It is played with warmth, intimacy and intensity, with Ben Turner offering a deeply etched portrait of the conflicted Amir, burdened by his guilty secret, and Andrei Costin doing tender double duty as Amir’s childhood friend Hassan, and later Hassan’s own son Sohrab. As their respective fathers, Emilio Doorgasingh and Ezra Faroque Khan are equally moving in their relationships to each other and their sons.
Croft, the long-standing artistic director at Nottingham Playhouse, who will depart in 2017 after 18 years in the role, directs a spellbinding production, beautifully underscored by a live tabla player, on a stage that is atmospherically dominated by a fan-shaped kite complete with a rear screen for William Simpson’s evocative projections.