The Kite Runner (Theatre Royal, Brighton)

The Kite Runner (Theatre Royal, Brighton, until November 18th)

Friendship, family, betrayal and redemption are at the heart of the powerful and unforgettable drama The Kite Runner, adapted from the best-selling novel and now on a national tour.

With its backdrop of massive social, cultural and political change in Afghanistan from the 1970s to the new millennium and the hopes and dreams provided by the story is never going to be less than hard-hitting and Matthew Spangler’s worthy adaptation of Khaled Hosseini’s book captures the familiar news events, including the fall of the monarchy, the Soviet invasion and the rise of the Taliban, blending them with a more intense personal story.

It is as much a heartbreaking analysis of relationships (between fathers and sons, between friends from different ethnic backgrounds) as it is a parable about cowardice, crippling guilt and atonement through sacrifice and repentance. It is not too hard to uncover a play with as much depth and richness as anything by Shakespeare.

Director Giles Croft understands that the play is always going to be at a disadvantage when compared to the novel, which explores so many layers of Afghan life and the complexities and subtleties of what is happening emotionally, so the production is played out on a minimalist set (potent as both dusty Kabul streets and busy Californian city habitat) allowing narrative and characters to drive things along. In the same way as the book, the play recognises that its themes are universal in spite of the specific culture it portrays.

The use of a live musician (Hanif Khan) gives the play an authentic rhythmic heartbeat, with onstage use of the atmospheric whirling schwirrbogen particularly effective in evoking the breezes carrying the fluttering kites central to the story.

Adapter Matthew Spangler (an American playwright, director and academic who studied at the University of Sussex in the 1990s) provides an uncluttered and absorbing script which tells the story simply and at a fast pace, though the way in which the parts of the book are translated onto the stage means the second half can appear over-long.

A likeable and strong cast give intensity to the story of the two childhood friends in Kabul, one the son of a wealthy Pashtun businessman, the other the Hazara son of the family servant, brought together more closely by the sport of kite flying but ripped apart by the shocking act of a bully.

David Ahmad’s Amir, the story’s narrator, manages to turn his cowardly child into a force for good, his love of storytelling very much a part of his key act of redemption, his all-consuming guilt being turned into positive action. It is a demanding role played engagingly, with a genuine sense of a man troubled by a nagging conscience, and it is well balanced by Jo Ben Ayed’s quiet but strong Hassan/Sohrab.

Emilio Doorgasingh is particularly powerful as Amir’s father, Baba, caring but distant, while Bhavin Bhatt’s Assef is a chilling sociopath across the generations. Lovely support too from Karl Seth as the supportive family friend who encourages Amir’s dreams and later entices him home from the US to begin his journey to redemption, and from Ravi Aujla as the formidable father of the girl Amir is to marry.

The play may well stick so closely to the plot of the novel that it loses some of its epic nature and historical dimension of the intimate and intricate central themes, but this doesn’t stop the production being haunting, honest and impressive.

David Guest

Picture shows David Ahmad as Amir and Jo Ben Ayed as Hassan