If you weren’t content with only a book and a film, now The Kite Runner has been turned into a West End play. Fresh from a tour of the UK, this remarkably stripped back production could have done with a little beefing up now it’s found a stable home for a few months.
The vast, mountainous landscape of Afghanistan and the steep, tram-lined streets of San Francisco are both represented here by a pebbly skateboarding ramp against a backdrop of uneven wooden planks, onto which sketchy patterns and lights are projected to depict distant skyscrapers.
The cast are left to mime the rest, including the kite-flying competition implicit in the title. There’s frugal staging and then there’s stingy staging and this teeters into the latter.
Still, where the set falls down, the plot holds up. Based on a much-loved bestseller by Khaled Hosseini, it charts the life of Amir, a wealthy Pashtun boy brought up with his servant Hassan, from the lower-class Hazara community.
Local teen sociopath Assef puts Hassan’s loyalty to Amir to the test, which results in a violent sexual attack neither of them ever forget. Too scared to intervene, Amir finds he’s unable to deal with the guilt and cuts all ties with Hassan.
Then war rears its head and he flees to the US with his father to wipe the slate clean. Years later, a family friend gets back in contact offering Amir a chance to redeem himself, but it involves returning to a now-Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and confronting old enemies.
Packed with family backstories and Middle Eastern politics, it was always going to be a difficult story to transfer to the stage. But even allowing for this, there’s far too much narration in Matthew Spangler’s adaptation, which eschews the old storytelling adage of “show not tell” in favour of long, confessional monologues.
Despite a few wobbly accents, the mostly Asian cast do their best to bring these to life, giving heartfelt performances that develop nuance in the second half when most of the action shifts abruptly to California. They even manage to wring a few laughs out of an ostensibly tragic war story, perhaps unintentionally in places – the introduction to San Francisco is a hilarious change in tone, with actors chanting their love for Burger King like they’re suddenly in a fast food-sponsored production of West Side Story.
This is a competent, accessible retelling, but one that’s sadly lacking in creative confidence. A little less talk and a little more action is what’s needed to make this adaptation of The Kite Runner really fly.