Bringing a much-loved novel to the stage is a tall order at the best of times, even more so with a story so sprawling and grandiose as Khaled Hosseini’s classic. It’s a credit to Matthew Spangler’s adaptation, Barney George’s set design and Jonathan Girling’s composition, then, that this production of The Kite Runner manages to cover all of the main points of the action with pathos and aplomb, tugging at the heartstrings of its audience like those of the kites onstage.
For the uninitiated, the story focuses on Amir, the son of a wealthy Pashtun, and his boyhood friendship with Hassan, the Hazara son of their servant. A classic anti-hero, Amir’s innate cowardice engenders the betrayal of his best friend, and the rest of the play is spent exploring his attempts to wrestle with his own nature in order to achieve redemption. At the same time, it covers a myriad of other themes, including the paternal bond between Amir and his father, a burgeoning love story, the difficulties of the US immigration system and the disintegration of an entire country. Tall order indeed.
Condensing all of this into a 120-minute show necessitates some simplification of the source material, and Spangler cuts corners by using the same actor (David Ahmad) to play Amir throughout the 25-year duration of the show. Ahmad switches from convincingly troubled narrator to less convincingly babyish Amir at will, and though at times his acting seems a little overwrought, it’s solid at the key moments when it matters. Jo Ben Ayed’s subservient Hassan is emotive if a little obvious, while Bhavin Bhatt’s pantomime villain jars a little with the visceral violence of his actions. Emilio Doorgasingh is probably the stand-out performer, imbuing Baba with a righteous indignation and a huge heart that is impossible not to like.
As for the set itself, George makes excellent use of giant kite wings to signal scene changes, host projected images and, crucially, conceal the act upon which the play hinges. It’s a deft trick and one that works well with the minimalist cityscape background and Afghan rugs to create the perfect space for the actors to tell their story. The soundtrack, performed onstage by accomplished tabla player Hanif Khan, adds another dimension to the experience as well, with well-timed interjections at crucial points in the play.
All in all, The Kite Runner is a spell-binding adaptation of a particularly difficult book which sacrifices some of the meat on the storyline bones and simplifies a few characterisations, but loses none of the emotional power and punch. With a story this raw and affecting, that’s surely the main thing.