Thursday, January 12, 2017

Review: 'The Kite Runner' at Wyndam's Theatre, 10th January 2017

Everybody feels guilty about something. Maybe you've screwed a friend over, disappointed a relative or taken advantage of another's kindness and, though you wish you could turn the clock back, some things once broken can never be truly mended. This is the gist of Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner, a novel about a man who betrays his childhood best friend to win the approval of his father.

It's also a potted history of Afghanistan, taking us from the early 70s and the "sleepy monarch" Zahir Shah, through his overthrow, the subsequent Soviet invasion, the rise of the Taliban and into post 9/11 US military action. Along the way we travel across continents and over oceans, witness brutal violence, razor-stringed kite battles, summary executions and the steep suburban hills of San Francisco. To say the show covers a lot of ground would be an understatement, and doing justice to it on stage is no small task, even at a large, well equipped theatre like the Wyndam's.

Our guilt-ridden protagonist is Amir, played by Ben Turner from childhood to adult. He's grown up in Kabul as a wealthy Pashtun, the dominant economic ethnicity in the country. In a mud hut at the end of his garden lives his best friend Hassan, a Hazara. Hazaras, originally descended from the tribes of Genghis Khan are routinely discriminated against as 'lesser' humans, fit only for servitude and manual labour.

Ignorant of all this cultural baggage, Amir and Hassan become the best of friends, bonding over the traditional kite-flying battles that take place in the skies of Kabul. Hassan subsequently becomes known as the best kite runner around, able to predict exactly where each fallen kite will land. But as the two grow up, Amir begins to understand the racial tensions in Afghanistan and feel awkward around his Hazara friend. This culminates in a shocking betrayal of trust that fuels the rest of the play.

There's a lot to admire in The Kite Runner. Director Giles Croft has crammed so much geography and history into a small space, using a pair of gigantic on-stage kites as projection screens, coupled with a screen of wooden planks that's as believable as a dusty Kabul back garden as the glittering San Francisco skyline. There's also a wonderful live tabla accompaniment from Hanif Khan, a little touch that adds an imperceptible layer of authenticity to the show.

It can also boast a bevy of impressive performances, from Nicholas Karimi's eminently hateful sneering thug Assef to Antony Bunsee's stiff-backed, ultra-dignified former Afghani general now reduced to running a flea market stand. Best of all is Emilio Doorgasingh's beefy, solid and attention grabbing father, Baba. He radiates simply paternal safety, and his pride, morality and courage are a neat inspiration to the morally compromised people that surround him.

Sadly, things come a little unstuck when we come to the Ben Turner's central performance. Both Turner and Costin look a little silly playing the characters as children, especially with the creepy kid voices they both affect. Things improve a little when Turner's Amir hits adolescence, but the performance is constantly hamstrung by having to deliver reams of (admittedly necessary) exposition as he describes important off-stage events. When Turner gets the chance to display his performative qualities he impresses  - he's great when miming a kite battle, or in the pits of despair late in the play - but he never overcomes the burden of being both narrator and character, weighed down by page after page of over-egged interior dialogue that tells rather than shows how awful he feels.

This ties into a narrative which ever so gently goes off the rails as we head into the final act. Relatable drama morphs into credibility-stretching melodrama: we start with a small-scale domestic conflict that, by the closing scenes has evolved into a fist fight with a sadistic paedophile Taliban executioner wearing a seriously dodgy fake beard.  Coincidences and unlikely deus ex machinas begin to stack up, the narrative unable to resist tossing in needless twists.

That aside, The Kite Runner is mostly a good play. It's a decent history lesson for West End audiences, filling in the blanks in a country that seems (to British eyes at least) to only be a source of bad news. In the best case scenario, audiences will recognise Amir and Hassan's sad story to be an echo of the ongoing plight of Syrian refugees - forced from their homes by war and desperate to maintain their dignity in the most trying of circumstances. 


The Kite Runner is at Wyndam's Theatre, booking until 11th March. Tickets here.

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