The success of Khaled Hosseini's 2003 novel The Kite Runner – and the film that followed it – was firmly built on an exceptionally good story which unfolds over 25 years in the troubled history of Afghanistan. It soared to the top of the bestseller lists - it spent 101 weeks in the US charts - with the wind of its vivid descriptions and compelling plot behind it. It is a book once read, never forgotten.
In turning it into a play adapter Matthew Spangler has faithfully replicated its virtues. He puts the story into the mouth of Amir, looking back on his Kabul childhood from his new life in America, and recounting the twists and turns of his friendship with his servant Hassan that has bitter consequences for them both.
In Giles Croft's careful production, originally seen at the Nottingham Playhouse in 2013, with designs by Barney George, their entire world is conjured by a couple of wooden ramps, a backcloth of a skyline and huge sections of a kite, on which the leaves of a pomegranate tree or the tracery of a curtain are intermittently projected. Hanif Khan provides percussive music from the side of the stage, a constant atmospheric background.
In this setting, the narrative of unequal love and loyalty exerts its firm hold. The fact that Amir is a Pashtun (Sunni) and Hassan a discriminated against Hazara (Shi'a) becomes more relevant as the country in which they live spins into war. But the heart of the tale lies in the poetry-writing Amir's desire to win the approval of his tough guy father, Baba; this is the source of his terrible act of betrayal and his quest for redemption, "to be good again."
The staging of scenes such as the key kite competition – with simple white tissue paper shapes filling the stage – and the flight from Afghanistan in an oil-tanker is effective, and in their multi-playing of many parts a small cast bring a surprising amount of life to the stage. This at least partially disguises the fall in energy and urgency of the play's second act, which simply has too much ground to cover before it reaches the dramatic events of its close.
Best of all are Ben Turner as the agonised – and sometimes downright unpleasant – Amir and Andrei Costin as his faithful friend Hassan (and later as his son Sohrab). Both find subtlety and feeling in the characters, marking shifts of mood, emphasis and even language with skill and clarity, disguising the occasional clunkiness of the dialogue and structure, and giving you reason to care about the lives unfolding on stage.