Kites on stage! Might Phil put them up there with balloons, one of his other theatrical bêtes noires?
There are a few fluttering about, but not as many as you might expect given the title. And they’re a little disappointingly realised. Things on the end of bendy sticks. Not high fliers or not there at all (mimed). You may be reminded of the birds in the opening sequence of the stage version of The Lion King. Thankfully they’re not used as metaphors. Well, they probably are, but it went right over Phil’s head. If only the kites had too.
Khaled Hosseini‘s novel The Kite Runner sold millions. Phil hadn’t read it or seen the film which probably helped considerably. So the story of a deep friendship between two boys (one a servant to the other) in a tribally conflicted Seventies Afghanistan which also covers the Soviet invasion, the Taliban surge and 9/11 took him completely by surprise.
Thankfully it’s not a true story though individual elements are based on real brutal atrocities and elements of Hosseini‘s life. Quite a lot to fit in the lengthy (2hrs 45 min) running time. Matthew Spangler‘s dramatisation of the novel sees the central character Amir (Ben Turner) narrating huge chunks of it. There’s an awful lot of telling and not quite enough showing.
Phil was very uneasy with this at first; further compounded by a slightly plodding opening and the Blood Brothers‘ device of adults playing young boys. Where’s the exit? Percussion features strongly: an on stage musician (Hanif Khan) taps away at the tabla drums, pots have brushes wiped around their rims and cast members suggest wind by twirling what looked like Brobdingnagian egg whisks.
And yet. Slowly Phil became gripped by the thoroughly shocking story which hops continents to encompass violent bullying, racism, class, love, death, friendship, loyalty, immigrant struggles, adoption, storytelling, education, err, kites and, after a ghastly life-changing incident, more guilt than Sophie’s Choice. Whew. Exhausted already. Amir, who, after a desperate search for parental approval has another rummage around, this time seeking some form of redemption.
Emilio Doorgasingh is one of the stronger supporting players (of a largish cast), as Baba, Amir’s father and when he’s not attempting to be a young boy Turner is impressive. It’s a mammoth, ambiguous, intense role. A man who makes himself extremely difficult to like, yet has you rooting for him. Almost. His “troubled” is brilliantly convincing. Turner has an awful lot of lines to remember. You have to pity his understudy. Andrei Costin as his loyal boyhood friend Hassan, who runs to collect the kites in the Kabul kite fights, is subtle, mesmerising, heartbreaking and quietly brilliant without having to say very much at all. Speaks volumes doesn’t it? Or not maybe.
Sometimes it’s overly melodramatic and uses coincidence in a way that would make even Julian Fellowes blush. Things flag a tad when Amir reaches San Francisco early in Act 2 before picking up again when he returns to Afghanistan. Despite this there are some treats along the way, including an enjoyably dodgy Taliban beard wig and a line of dialogue, “John Wayne doesn’t speak Farsi” which sounds a song title Haysi Fantayzee rejected.
Barney George’s design is necessarily fairly simple. Giles Croft’s production opens with what looks like a rolled up Axminster in a skate board park. Phil hoped that when the carpet was unrolled it might contain Cleopatra. Preferably in the shape of Amanda Barrie. Sadly not.
As the tale exerted its mighty stranglehold on the audience you could hear a pin drop, apart, that is, from the occasional collective gasp during plot revelations. Even Phil released some involuntary air. The last 20 minutes were played out against a background of audience snuffling while Phil watched through a mist of bodily fluid as he groped for his tissues.
Appropriately Mary Poppins’ “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” always has the same effect on him.
Phil was at the press night, and with 2016 leaving such a celebrity vacuum, he was pleased to find they’d still managed to muster Fiona Bruce, Rhydian Roberts, Angus Deayton, Tim McInnerny, Mariella Frostrup and Anneka Rice who nearly knocked Phil’s glass of wine out of his hand without apologising. Phil decided not to challenge Anneka.
Thrillingly it was only when Phil spotted both Su Pollard and Biggins that he felt he could really complete his celebrity opening night bingo card.