Theatre review: The Kite Runner, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, until Saturday November 8

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AS a big fan of the source book I approached this touring production of the hugely successful novel The Kite Runner with equal excitement and trepidation.

How would this rich, evocative, cross-continental tale of friendship, brutality, betrayal and redemption translate to the stage?

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I needn’t have worried. The show - adapted by Matthew Spangler from Khalid Hosseini’s novel and directed by Giles Croft - was utterly gripping from start to finish, despite a more than two-and-a-half hour runtime.

Set initially in an increasingly turbulent Afghanistan in the 1970s, we follow narrator and protagonist Amir (Ben Turner, Casualty) and his childhood friend and titular ‘kite runner’ Hassan (Andrei Costin), who are about to be torn apart by the events of one earth-shattering afternoon and its aftermath.

Hassan is not just Amir’s friend, he is also the son of the family’s servant Ali (Ezra Khan), who has been with Amir’s whisky-drinking pipe-smoking proud-Pashtun father Baba (Emilio Doorgasingh)for 40 years.

It is something that Hassan - a member of Afghanistan’s ‘untouchables’, the Hazara - is never allowed to forget, even by those sympathetic to him.

A shocking act of brutality turns the boys’ joyful afternoon of kite flying into a nightmare that will haunt Amir - a natural and talented writer with a fatal cowardly flaw - for the next three decades.

The scene is set when Amir enters the stage in a plain white shirt and black trousers. He stays in his simple attire throughout, even as the characters around him weave through several decades and their fashions. This effect works really well to highlight Amir’s perennial sense of alienation.

The staging is also simple. Large drapes, with ever changing patterns and backgrounds projected onto them, act as our windows into and out of an unknown world.

Especially clever are the changing projections of Farsi text on to the Persian rug which occupies the main stage. The creation of a San Francisco skyline is also clever and simple, and another highlight is the use of the ensemble of actors and extras, along with simple props and sound effects, to recreate the scenes of kite flying in Kabul, and later in America.

However for me the most impressive part of the staging is the excellent use of shadow and mime to evoke some of the more powerful images of Taliban brutality.

There is something about grown up actors playing the child versions of their characters which can be grating, but here it is perfectly pitched.

Both lead actors excel in portraying the childish innocence of their cross-class friendship.

The effect of having the narrator dipping in and of out of the action works surprisingly well, and it is at no point off-putting.

In fact, more off-putting is the ever present tabla-drum player, who despite providing some beautiful background music for much of the show, does seem intrusive and unnecessary at several points.

As the action moves to the USA, there is humour and pathos in the family’s changing fortunes.

But underlying everything is a deep sense of tragedy and regret.

Whether you know the story or not, there are genuine moments of aching sadness that will leave a lump in your throat.

There was no small amount of audible sniffling in the audience as we absorbed the shifting on-stage action.

Secrets and lies unfold in devastating fashion in the most unusual of circumstances, adding to the drama.

When the story comes full circle, and Amir finally takes his chance at redemption, his joy is matched by that of the audience, our collective spirits soaring as high as the kites.

The acting is impeccable throughout, with the ensemble providing brilliant support to the excellent Turner and Costin.

Interestingly there is only one woman in the cast, Amir’s love-interest Soraya (Lisa Zahra), but she provides a shining light for the motherless - and rudderless - Amir. The chemistry between the two actors is tangible, and their courtship scenes are funny and sweet.

But the real star of the show, and its heart, is Hassan. His unflinching loyalty and bravery - echoed many years later in heartbreaking scenes - provide the real moral centre of the story.

Emilio Doorgasingh as Baba brings a beautiful balance of light and shade to his pivotal role. And Nicholas Karimi as chief villain Assef also relishes his part, especially in the second act.

The Kite Runner is as much about the power of storytelling as it is about its own story.

And long after the curtain has come down, this haunting re-creation of it will resonate, not once, but a thousand times over.

Rating: ***** out of 5

>The Kite Runner is at West Yorkshire Playhouse until Saturday, November 8.

Tickets start from £12.

Call 0113 213 7700 or visit www.wyp.org.uk.

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