REVIEW: The Kite Runner, York Theatre Royal, until Saturday *****

Childhood friends: Stuart Vincent’s Amir, left and Yazdan Qafouri’s Hassan in The Kite Runner, on tour at York Theatre Royal. Picture: Barry Rivett

THE Kite Runner has flown into York for the first time since its May 2018 visit to the Grand Opera House, and it finds relationships on the global stage even more fractured and fractious in 2024.

The United States at war with itself in Trump versus Boden, the re-match. Afghanistan back under control of the Taliban. Putin signing a pact with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. Russia invading Ukraine. Israel and Hamas, never-ending.

Whenever Giles Croft’s production returns, the impact of Californian playwright Matthew Spangler’s adaptation of medical practitioner and writer Khaled Hosseini’s novel grows incrementally, as does a feeling of despair.

Spangler is a professor of playwriting and theatre of immigration in San Jose, where Hosseini settled after leaving Afghanistan, mirroring the path of protagonist Amir, who moves to Fremont, California.

After omnipresent musician Hanif Khan sets the mood with his table-playing on stage, Stuart Vincent’s warts-and-all Amir narrates his confessional story, heading back to his 1970s’ Afghanistan childhood as the privileged son of a wealthy Kabul family.

As in Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers, adults play childhood friends, in this case Amir and Hassan (Yazdan Qafouri), the kite-running son of long-serving family servant Ali (Tiran Aakel).

The innocence of playing cowboys (like in Blood Bothers, incidentally) and sharing stories of mythical deeds will be swamped as the boys become entangled in a web of betrayal and guilt in a male-dominated world of masters and servants, bullies and victims, where Amir’s blossoming talents as a writer are not appreciated by his authoritarian, widowed father, Baba (Dean Rehman).

Reconciliation and redemption – the chance to be “good again” – will emerge eventually, but what a shocking price, both destructive and self-destructive, has been paid, as Vincent’s Amir leads the story between his crushing past and haunted, guilt-shrouded present.

For all the beauty of kites in flight, the essence of Kabul’s kite-flying tournament is the skill required to cut the line of the losers: a metaphor for the damage inflicted in such a macho world (from Baba and Ian Abeysekera’s General Taheri’s lack of appreciation of books and writing to the schoolboy bullying inflicted by Bhavin Bhatt’s Assef).

Matching this male-prescribed culture, the cast has only one significant female role: Daphne Kouma’s Soraya, the intransigent General’s literature-loving daughter. Later to become a teacher, she is the first female voice to enter Amir’s ear, and what a transformative effect she has, after his cowardly childhood behaviour had so tragically damaged the ever-loyal Hassan and himself.

At odds with our age of alternative truths and doctored recollections, Amir’s account is painfully truthful as he introduces scenes and steps in and out of the story, so frank in exposing his own faults and fallibilities as much as those of the men around him.

Such is the theatrical intelligence of Croft’s nuanced production, at once brutal yet deeply humane, playing to heart and mind in equal measure. You will laugh initially, feel rising anger, and then cry too, in direct correlation with the ebb and flow of Vincent’s superb performance, and all the while Qafouri’s Hassan, and later in his second role as his son Sohrab, will tear at your heart.

Barney George’s designs, in tandem with William Simpson’s skyline projections, capture the fiery heat and stifling culture of Afghanistan and the contrasting freedoms of California, complemented by Charles Balfour’s lighting design, as once more the intense drama and soul-searching honesty of The Kite Runner makes for confrontational theatre at its best.

The Kite Runner, York Theatre Royal, 7.30pm tonight; 2pm and 7.30pm, Thursday; 7.30pm, Friday;  2.30pm and 7.30pm, Saturday. Box office: 01904 623568 or