The Kite Runner – Review

Ben Turner in The Kite Runner. Images Robert Workman

The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini’s sweeping Afghan best seller, about friendship, betrayal and redemption, has won fans around the world.

Translated into a successful movie and play, Giles Croft’s stage production had a VIP opening in the West end last night in front of an enthralled audience.

Matthew Spangler’s adaptation held the crowd at Wyndham’s Theatre spellbound as the story pitched and rolled, dipped and soared, then finally, masterfully, brought us full circle.

It’s a remarkable piece of story-telling that starts at a boy’s innocent childhood in Kabul, filled with games about cowboys and competitive kite-flying, through revolution and turmoil, to finally end up in an America reeling in shock at the tragedy of 9/11.

It is a story of fathers and sons, a beloved country torn apart by war, a people, a history, and one man’s personal journey to find peace.

There are moments of pure joy and scenes that will shock you.

Last night’s audience sat utterly absorbed by the epic unfolding before them. You could have heard a pin drop (ruined briefly when a phone went off in the stalls). There were gasps, a few sobs and, what has now become, the obligatory standing ovation.

Only, in this case it was well deserved. Splendidly told by director Croft, with a vibrant ensemble led by English-Iranian actor Ben Turner, The Kite Runner, catches your attention with laughter and holds it with a beautifully plotted story.

My only, very tiny, criticism, was that there’s just too much here to absorb during one visit, or even in one, lengthy (150 minute) play. As gripped as I was, it felt overlong.

Spangler keeps to the episodic style of a book, starting with “chapter one – my childhood” and working his way through 30 years of milestones until reaching the epilogue.

Turner gives a captivating performance, both as narrator and the protagonist, Amir, a merchant’s son, constantly stepping out of his younger self to act as the charismatic author of this fictional autobiography.

We meet Amir playing with his “best friend” Hassan in the grounds of his luxury home. It seems an idyllic life, pretending you’re John Wayne, shooting imaginary enemies, and sharing confidences.

But the happiness is just a facade. Amir’s mother died in childbirth and his father, Baba (Emilio Doorgasingh so right as the grieving, remote father figure) has become embittered and resentful, blaming his young son for his wife being cruelly snatched away.

So Amir spends his time with Hassan, his Kite Runner, but the difference in their religion and caste means they can never be true friends. Amir is Pashtun and Hassan, the son of their servant, is a Hazara, a descendant of Genghis Khan’s Mongols.

Ethnic rivalry, hostilities from centuries before, still exist in an Afghanistan that will face even greater unrest as Amir and Hassan grow.

The bliss of their childhood is shattered one day when Hassan is attacked by the neighbourhood thug. It is a horrifying incident which marks a watershed in a wind-change in the atmosphere of the play, and a watershed in the boys’ lives.

Unable to cope with the guilt at running away from the incident, and failing to help the young Hassan, Amir spends the next 20 years consumed with regret at his actions.

The Kite Runner follows Amir and his father as political turmoil forces the pair together for a terrifying bid for freedom and a new life in America. It is a coming of age story that will break your heart.

There are undoubtedly elements of the story that mirror Hosseini’s own life but it is mostly a work of fiction. It is a remarkable debut novel which throws up a collection of vividly drawn characters as complex as anything created by Dickens.

Nicholas Karimi is terrifying as the sociopath Assef who destroys lives both as an out-of-control bully and, later, as butcher for the Taliban. Andrei Costin a delight both as the innocent and devoted Hassan and, in other scenes, as his damaged son Sohrab. Antony Bunsee steals scenes, sometimes with nothing more than a look, as refugee diplomat General Taheri.

But mostly, we watch Turner, as Amir grows from a squeaky-voiced young boy with dreams of being a writer, to a shy and troubled teen who is haunted by past actions, and finally, a married man who finds peace through impossible odds. A morality tale for modern times.

The Kite Runner plays at Wyndham’s Theatre until March 11.

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