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Review: THE BOY WITH TWO HEARTS, National Theatre

Heartwarming story of Afghan refugees plays it a little too safe

Review: THE BOY WITH TWO HEARTS, National Theatre Review: THE BOY WITH TWO HEARTS, National Theatre Two Afghan refugees, Hamed and Hessam Amiri, have honoured the memory of their brother by writing a love letter to him and to their home of the last 20 years - the two hearts of the title.

In a week when the Home Secretary said that seeing a flight take asylum seekers to Rwanda is her "dream" and "obsession", it is a heartwarming counter-narrative to such nihilistic political leadership.

Adapted by Phil Porter from the brothers' book and transferring from its successful run at Wales Millennium Centre last year, The Boy With Two Hearts follows an Afghan family from Herat to Cardiff through that perilous journey as they face down the people traffickers, cope with being smuggled across borders in tiny hideouts within cars, trains and lorries and look after Hussein, a bright lad with a heart condition. The family stick together, their humour and their love seeing them through, until they encounter, on our shores, the love of strangers - the health workers in hospitals, the volunteers who helped them settle in a strange new world and the daily decency of so many ordinary people.

The three lads are the centre of the play, forced to grow up in a hurry, jumping from bickering about the relative merits of Manchester United and Arsenal to chivvying each other on to dangerous transport across ruthlessly policed borders. Shamali Ali , Fashid Rokey and Ahmad Sakhi create different personalities for our trio, the eldest studious, the middle one feisty, the youngest sweet and they pull together with a ferocious sense of family.

Dana Haqjoo and Houda Echaouafni make ideal parents, calm and brave, single-minded and persevering, patient and funny, Haqjoo's Mohammed with his Dad jokes, Echaouafni's Fariba with her resilience. They're complimented by the singing of Elaha Soroor, whose Afghan songs give an ethereal presence of homeland whenever it feels too far away. Director, Amit Sharma, uses surtitles throughout that allows the actors to switch between English and Farsi as the drama demands. Like the Amiris, we're never quite in Afghanistan, but we're never quite away from there either.

For anyone who has seen the award-winning animated movie, Flee, much of the journey will be familiar, down to the street robbery in Moscow, but others may be shocked by how life-threatening a journey across 21st century Europe can be for those seeking refuge without documents. I sincerely hope they are. But the jeopardy never really builds - we're pretty much told the ending in the prologue and in the programme (else we wouldn't have a play) - so the some of the building blocks of theatre are rather cast aside. There is very little in the way of politics either, somewhat surprisingly as the immediate cause of the Amiris' flight is an overtly political speech (recklessly so perhaps) by Fariba, courageously attacking the newly installed Taliban government in 2000.

What's left is a little too sentimental, a little too straightforward and a little too predictable given the incendiary qualities of its subject matter. That said, and perhaps shortened a little, this play would work wonderfully well in schools, either acted in person or on video - and I do hope it enjoys a third life in that environment when this run is over.

The Boy With Two Hearts is at The National Theatre until 12 November

Photo Credit: Jorge Lizalde

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