BWW Review: THE KITE RUNNER, Wyndham's Theatre

Amir and Hassan knock about together as kids. Hassan looks up to the year-older Amir, seeking to please him in all things, especially as his kite runner, the boy who races after kites downed in the aerial combats that were such a highlight of Kabul life. They may be master and servant, Pastun and Hazara, bookish and illiterate, but none of that matters to best buddies. Then it all changes.

Amir, not a rough boy (to his father's disappointment), fails to intervene when Hassan is assaulted, the guilt never leaving him over decades and continents. The Afghan monarchy falls and then the republic too, as the brutal Taliban regime comes to power in the aftermath of the Soviets' chaotic withdrawal, the beautiful country once again the battleground for clashing empires and ideologies. The two boys are separated by half a world, until Amir is summoned back to his roots and must, once again, decide whether to do the right thing or the easy thing.

Based on Khaled Hosseini's hugely successful novel (but not the feature film), this transfer from Nottingham Playhouse arrives in the West End with a wonderful pedigree and there are plenty of signs of such confidence in the production. Kites form the backdrop of Barney George's set, lusciously lit by Charles Balfour, suggesting locations as diverse as a squalid Kabul den and the bright light of 80s San Francisco and there's excellent work from Hanif Khan on the Tabla, his percussion creating mood and place without ever being intrusive.

Director Giles Croft is well served by strong performances through the cast, Ben Turner is entirely credible as the serious and tormented Amir with Andrei Costin playful and subservient and brave as his best friend Hassan. Amongst the support, Emilio Doorgasingh captures the stubborn decency of Amir's father with wit and wisdom and Nicholas Karimi is terrifying as proto-fascist Assef.

I was transfixed by the history of Afghanistan by the best of the Flashman Papers (Flashman and the Great Game) and read more about this extraordinary country in accounts of the British Empire's three (less than successful) wars on the territory. Everything about the country and its history deserves the adjective "epic", but this quality just doesn't come through on stage. Instead, there are elements of Blood Brothers and of generic Charles Dickens, as the specificities of the story become blurred into a family saga of secrets, guilt and separation that could have been set anywhere.

Perhaps that's the price to pay if producers want to the public to pay West End prices, but what emerges is something that is worthy, faithful to its source, but ever so slightly dull - and nothing set in that country's terrible history should ever be described as dull.

The Kite Runner continues at Wyndham's Theatre, booking until 11 March.

Photo Robert Workman.

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