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Review: The Kite Runner

The play of Khaled Hosseini's best-selling novel is on tour, featuring brilliant on stage percussion. It comes to Birmingham Rep March 13 - 24.

“You’ll need your hanky,” warned the woman at the bar before I saw The Kite Runner this week. She was right.

This stage adaptation from the best-selling novel covers the relationship between two Afghan boys, Amir and Hassan, with different ethnic and class backgrounds who, despite the odds, are inseparable friends until a terrible incident during a kite fighting tournament. It also covers a huge historical sweep from Kabul in the 1970s then under the Taliban, to modern day San Fransisco.

Photo by Betty Zapata

It was adapted for the stage by Mathew Spangler with consulation with the author Khaled Hosseini whose family helped provide tips on Afghan culture and history.

The play is heavily narrated, following the style of the book which is told for the most part from the point of view of a regretful adult looking back at the events that formed him. Amir the narrator slips deftly in and out of playing Amir the child – the dual roles handled by Raj Ghatak. Personally, I’d have preferred a lot more showing than telling but on the plus side it means a lot of the actual wording of the book is retained.

The Kite Runner play review

Photo by Betty Zapata

My favourite aspect of the production was actually the music. The atmosphere of Kabul that was the strength of the novel is cleverly created on stage through brilliant use of percussion. A tabla drummer sits on stage throughout and stops and starts rhythms to underscore certain scenes and even key phrases. Tibetan singing bowls (more familiar to me from yoga relaxation) are employed not to be soothing but to ramp up tension in certain scenes.Composer/musical director Jonathan Girling says he wanted to replicate the sound of blood rushing in your ears when you’re caught in a terrifying situation.

My favourite were the Schwirrbogen, that look like football rattles. When swung by members of the cast, these create an effective wind noise, which sounds great in the kite fighting scenes.

A coach party of teenagers were among those in the audience the night I went. I’d guess, like me, most people had read the book, though clearly not the woman behind me who let out horrified gasps, reminding me just how shocking the story is in places.

Photo by Betty Zapata

Fans of the novel, rest assured, the play is faithful to the book and there are no glaring omissions, though I’d have liked to see more depth to Amir’s return to Kabul and brushes with the Taliban. His efforts to disguise himself  with a false beard (dispensed with on stage) were both frightening and comic in the novel.

Hassan is played by Jo Ben Ayed eternally stooped in acknowledgement of his lower status to his friend. At first this sat oddly with me, because I remembered the servant boy as the brave one, but it drew out the importance of class as well as race in fuelling what happens between the boys.

Ghatak as Amir has an epic of a role, he’s barely off stage and the lengthy narration means that impressively, he’s learned swathes of the book off by heart.

The Kite Runner play review

Photo by Betty Zapata

The staging is simple, for most part a large rug and something like a low skateboard ramp curving at both ends, which is used well in the scenes where the boys are rushing about playing. I particularly liked the projections onto the sail shaped background that range between Afghan artwork, San Fransisco’s cityscapes and at one point terrible silhouettes of violence.

And the kite’s… well naturally they are stylised, some on wires, others created by mime alone.

It’s a long production but on the night I went the audience were enthusiastic in their applause and whoops at the end, and I reckon there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

The Kite Runner, Tues March 13 – Sat March 24, The REP, Birmingham, Tel Box Office: 0121 236 4455, birmingham-rep.co.uk

Reviewed by Muddy Sussex ed Debbie in Crawley

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