The Kite Runner, a novel by Khaled Hosseini, has sold more than 30 million copies worldwide. Now it arrives on the West End stage, a doggedly efficient piece that somehow lacks true dazzle. The narrative style involves thick wodges of plot being delivered at the audience like news bulletins on the half-hour. The emotional range is limited and the characters never challenge our expectations.
The setting is Kabul in the 1970s. We meet nice Amir, a personable everyman, whose family have foreseen the rise of theocratic despotism and are plotting to escape. We hope they do. We’re attracted to Amir’s garrulous, whisky-drinking dad. ‘All crime is a form of theft,’ he philosophises. We find the psychotic street bully Assef utterly appalling. We feel sorry when Amir’s friend Hassan is raped by a gang of muggers. We share in Amir’s guilt when he admits that he witnessed the crime but failed to prevent it. When Amir moves to America we’re pleased to see him thrive. And we fear for him when he returns to Kabul in the 1990s and finds psychotic Assef transformed into a beheader of his fellow Muslims who flaunts his blood-stained sleeves as a badge of honour. Assef is still appalling. Amir is still nice. Not much has changed. Not enough, certainly, to move or astonish us.
Multicultural junkies will extol this play as an example of integration at its best. But Amir’s odyssey occurred 40 years ago and there are striking differences between him and his successor migrants. His view of Islam is essentially secular. He’s like a church-shy Brit who regards Anglicanism as a decorative irrelevance that provides a few reassuring background details for the transitional rites of birth, marriage and death. Amir can barely quote the Koran. He wears training shoes and listens to disco music. His family are rich too. In-house servants attend to them around the clock. They can choose which part of the West to migrate to and they select San Francisco, where they gladly accept the humble rank of apprentice westerners. It never occurs to them to Islamise their hosts because the superiority of the US appears to them as immutable as the proofs of Euclid. This piece is a hymn to a vanished era when immigration worked.
The Royal Court’s mission to depress Belgravia continues. January’s wrist-slasher opens with Tamsin, a troubled 19-year-old, who works as a parcel-packer in a computerised warehouse. Life at home is gruesome. No Dad. Mum is dead. Tamsin cares for her gay autistic brother, who suffers from agoraphobia and OCD and is constantly hounded by Job Centre bullies who threaten to dock his income if he fails to attend interviews. To make matters worse, Tamsin is a gifted physicist with a passion for astronomy whose dream has been wrecked by her chaotic family life.
We follow her to the warehouse, where she’s forced to put in ten-hour shifts, with a 30-minute break, performing tasks of mind-numbing simplicity. Jobs in factories are no longer the skiver’s paradise they once were. It used to be easy to bunk off for an hour or two and hide away with a book. But new technology ensures that even a few seconds’ absence will trigger an alert and a visit from a nuisance with a clipboard who has the power to terminate contracts on the spot.
These dismal facts are put across vividly and convincingly. And the play is astonishingly cordial and humane. Tamsin makes friends with a witty, handsome teenager, Luke, who isn’t remotely cowed by his Dickensian working conditions. The snippy sub-manager turns out to be a good egg who dislikes the system and enjoys bending the rules by granting his underlings forbidden perks. (How did such an upbeat character elude the Court’s panel of call-off-Christmases?) Tamsin meets Luke in a pub. At 16, he shyly admits that he’s too young to buy booze but he manfully empties out his pockets to subsidise Tamsin’s trip to the bar. Piles of 10p pieces spill all over the table. This disruption to the normal dating rituals is touching and very funny. Then comes a slow seduction scene which is heart-warmingly awkward and believable. Coy Tamsin expresses her tentative desire for Luke by miming the words to a Meat Loaf classic and their shared attraction, beautifully observed and acted, culminates in a brief, chaste kiss.
There’s a lot of lovely stuff in this play. Director Matthew Xia, always estimable, often superb, delivers the goods. I hope someone tells the writer that the tribulations of the underclass are a fetish of the subsidised theatre whose bosses are fascinated by the sufferings of the near-homeless in the same way that medieval kings liked to commission performances from acrobatic dwarves and dancing hunchbacks. The commercial theatre, i.e. the real theatre, finds its material elsewhere.