Melissa Blease reviews The Kite Runner, on at Theatre Royal Bath until Saturday 11 November

A book, a film and a play. Three words. First word: that’s easy – you just do the T-bar thing with your hands. Second word: cue lots of energetic wafting about, arms outstretched, shooting frustrated glares at your team members until they finally realise that you’re being a kite, not a plane… at which point, at least one of those team members will shout “The Kite Runner!”, and you score another point, without having to start running on the spot.

Even if The Kite Runner hasn’t quite taken over from Up, The Lord of the Rings and Free Willy on the Most Popular (and easiest to get) Charades charts yet, it’s become something of a cultural phenomenon since Khaled Hosseini’s first novel was published back in 2003.

That book turned out to be a record breaking, multi-million global bestseller, and has since been adapted for film, stage and as a graphic novel – and this latest stage production, written by Matthew Spangler, packs every bit as powerful an emotional punch as the book and the similarly successful 2007 movie.

Hosseini’s sprawling yarn is narrated by Amir, a grown-up Afghan refugee living in San Francisco and looking back on the childhood events that shaped his life, most notably his close friendship with Hassan, the similarly-aged son of Amir’s family’s servant. Hard though it may be to believe now, in the 1970s Afghanistan was a relatively peaceful and modern country (especially in the middle class, privileged districts of the kind in which Amir grows up), and the innocent pastime of flying kites offered its young people a form of escapism that crossed cultural, political and economic boundaries. But there was, of course, plenty of underlying tension in the air too, not least between two young boys negotiating the tightrope between childhood and early maturity.

When Amir fails to protect and defend his friend from a horrific assault, the guilt and shame he suffers as a consequence put an end to both boy’s halcyon days. At the same time, Amir’s strained relationship with his aloof father is becoming increasingly tense… and the Russians are about to invade Afghanistan. And as if all that isn’t enough for the duo to deal with, there’s far, far more to the story yet to unfold.

During the second half of the story, the unlikely swoops and dives occasionally threaten to fly the plot up, up and away from any relationship to reality as the story moves to San Francisco and then back to Afghanistan.

However, the artistry of Barney George’s set in this production (a simple backdrop depicting various skylines according to which country we’re in, with two sides of a huge, billowing kite acting as shifting walls and veils) and the gorgeous music (a live tabla player punctuating and underscoring many scenes while Tibetan Singing Bowls, haunting Raag Malkauns and even the occasional blast of early 1980s disco all add to the ambience) keep any real-world cynicism that threatens to creep in when the plot feels a little contrived at bay, whisking us away to a place where we believe magic can happen.

In a similar fashion, grown-up actor David Ahmad playing Amir both as an adult and as a child alongside Jo Ben Ayed’s Hassan feels a bit awkward at first. We soon get used to it though, and both deliver exceptional performances, with Ahmad switching comfortably between assured Westernised adult and immature youth, and Ayed wonderfully capturing the loyalty and vulnerability of Hassan.

They’re ably backed by an an equally substantial supporting cast (notably Emilio Doorgasingh as strict but proud father Baba and Amiera Darwish as Amir’s eventual wife Soraya).

This is a richly textured, beautifully staged tale exploring themes of loyalty, maturity, courage, guilt, cultural heritage and familial bonds at times of conflict both emotional and physical; it may all feel a little unlikely at times, but that doesn’t take away from the ultimately redemptive lesson that, as the most famous line of the book says, “there is a way to be good again”. Charades season may almost be upon us, but this production proves isn’t quite on pantomime territory yet.

Visit: theatreroyal.org.uk

Main image: David Ahmad as Amir and Jo Ben Ayed as Hassan in The Kite Runner. Credit: Betty Laura Zapata