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

Stuart Vincent graduates to lead role of Amir in The Kite Runner’s redemptive tale of friendship across cultures and continents

Tiran Aakel, left, Stuart Vincent and Amar Aggoun in a kite-flying scene in The Kite Runner. Pictures: Barry Rivett

STUART Vincent was three weeks into his cover role on the 2020 tour of The Kite Runner when the Covid pandemic sent the world into lockdown.

“The tour got cancelled, including the possibility of going to America,” he recalls. “But then I was contacted in December, when they asked if I was available and if I’d like to come back for the new tour. I said I’d love to try out for one of the lead roles – how about Amir?”

Stuart auditioned successfully, graduating from understudying the villainous Assef to playing Amir on a tour that began in late-February and brings Californian university professor and playwright Matthew Spangler’s stage adaptation to York Theatre Royal for the first time since October 2014 next week.

Based on Khaled Hosseini’s novel, this haunting tale of friendship spans cultures and continents as it follows Amir’s journey to confront his past and find redemption. That past was in Afghanistan when the country was on the verge of war and best friends Amir and Hassan were soon to be torn apart on a beautiful afternoon in Kabul, when a terrible incident at a kite-flying tournament would shatter their lives forever.

Giles Croft’s production is as resonant as ever, given the fracturing of the overheated political world and its clashing cultures. “It really is prescient, and we get a beautiful response every time we step out on stage,” says Stuart. “The roars we receive, the standing ovations.”

The innocence of playing cowboys, of sharing mythical stories, will disappear as the boys – played by adults – 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 macho father, Baba.

Reconciliation and redemption will come eventually, but what a terrible price has been paid, as Stuart’s Amir leads the story between his past and haunted present.

Childhood friends: Stuart Vincent’s Amir, left, and Yazdan Qafouri’s Hassan in The Kite Runner

“The character of Amir is difficult because he’s trying to make the right decisions, but they backfire on him, and he must then try to make things good again,” he says.

“As the audience follows his journey, they really get involved, especially with him talking directly to them over the two and a half hours.

“It’s been a challenge, for sure, with so much storytelling to do. In rehearsal, first of all you have learn all the lines and then there’s the other element of keeping the audience engaged at all times, and as an actor you put so much pressure on yourself to do that.

“But with the trust of the director [Giles Croft] and associate director [Damian Sandys], and the training I’ve been through, all you need to do is tell the story organically and really feel the lines.”

Stuart continues: “You don’t have to have loads of visuals, just fill it with emotion, as the writing paints with imagination, capturing what Afghanistan used to be like, painting that spectacle – how beautiful it once was.”

A sense of impotent rage, despair and frustration grows among audiences every time The Kite Runner goes on tour. “History is always repeating itself, with all these heartbreaking things that are happening in the world. Look back 50 years and you see the same things are happening again, everything that Hosseini’s characters are going through,” says Stuart.

Croft has assembled a multicultural cast. “We understand the issues of immigration and that culture, and that’s why it’s important to tell this story because it’s happening to us all,” says Stuart.

“This is a play for everyone, with so many themes,” says Stuart Vincent

“It may be about different cultures, but this is a play for everyone, with so many themes – love, brotherhood, betrayal, friendship and redemption – that everyone in the audience has been through and can relate to.

“Whether they’ve had a friendship that meant the world to them, or they made mistakes or had to redeem themselves.”

Stuart develops this theme further. “One of the things that I’ve been taught is that we are unique individuals, but at the same time we’re all the same, because we all go through these kinds of emotions. Take away the cultural differences, that’s what we can all relate to: love; how alive you feel, like a kid again sometimes.”

Now 34, Stuart reflects on the lasting impact of childhood friendships. “With those friendships, you have one hell of a wild imagination, with no sense of hazards or warnings,” he says.

“I remember climbing up walls, and standing on the top, fearless, whereas now I think about vertigo. As a child, you have no thoughts of health and safety; in your imagination, one minute you’re a cowboy, the next, an astronaut.

“When I go back to some of the things I did with my friends and my cousins when I was young, I think, ‘I wouldn’t do that now’.”

The Kite Runner, York Theatre Royal, June 18 to 22, 7.30pm plus 2pm Thursday and 2.30pm Saturday matinees. Box office: 01904 623568 or

In Focus: Actor Bhavin Bhatt on playing villainous Assef in The Kite Runner

Bhavin Bhatt’s Assef in The Kite Runner

BHAVIN Bhatt never set out to be an actor. He was just another schoolboy before his acting potential was spotted by a teacher.

“I was 12 or 13 years old and there was an annual Christmas show at my school and people were thinking about auditioning,” he says. “I was umming and aahing when my drama teacher – with whom I’m still in touch – said to me after class, ‘I want you to audition’.

“I did audition and got one of the roles! One of the leads in a cast of about 40. One night the drama teacher and director said they were going to bring in some (acting) agencies because they felt there was a lot of talent there. Luckily enough I got signed up and have been working as an actor ever since.”

Bhavin arrives at York Theatre Royal on Tuesday on the latest British tour of The Kite Runner in the role of Assef, the one that won him the Best Newcomer award at the Asian Media Awards while he was in the West End production.

Bhavin sees Assef as more than the villain of the piece. “When you read the book or the script for the first time, he comes across as a rough-and-tough bully. But the detail, especially in the book, gets inside the mind of a psychopath,” he says.

“As the story goes on, you see all the stages and the full-on psychopath he becomes later on. There are so many nuances and small details that enable you to bring out from your physicality and voice the way you deliver the lines. That makes it so interesting for an actor to play.

“We have managed to add a comedy element into the story, which I think is completely needed,” says Bhavin

“The playwright has been just so genius with the way he’s put everything that’s in the book into the script.”

Bhavin’s first experience of the play was in a smaller role, which meant he saw another actor portraying Assef. Was that a help or a hindrance when he came to play him? Neither, he says. “The person playing the part was great, but when I got the chance to play Assef I chatted with the director and decided to start again from scratch.

“My performance didn’t have to be a copy or based on anyone else’s performance. It was beautiful to go through the rehearsal process, doing your own research.”

Returning for the 2024 tour has seen much the same approach of starting from scratch. This is Bhavin’s first villainous character: fun to play, but the rehearsal process, with the need to ‘get into the mind of a psychopath’, was challenging, he says.

Humour assists Giles Croft’s production, perhaps why it has proved, and is still proving, so popular on tour. “We have managed to add a comedy element into the story, which I think is completely needed,” says Bhavin. “We take audiences on a rollercoaster ride. They’re laughing out loud at one scene and then on the edge of their seat the next.”

Bhavin Bhatt’s Assef and Stuart Vincent’s Amir in The Kite Runner

He is enjoying touring again with The Kite Runner. “It takes you away from home, from family and friends, so you have to adjust as you can. We’re doing seven or eight shows a week, so you have to look after yourself physically and vocally,” he says.

“Every single show we have to keep fresh. It’s interesting as you go up and down the country and see how audiences in different parts of the country react in different ways.”

A previous 2020 tour was cut short by the pandemic lockdown but not before the production had played the Dubai Opera House. “That building was absolutely stunning and the production was received incredibly well there,” says Bhavin.

His pursuit of diverse roles has been, and still can be, difficult, he reveals. “I remember when I was applying to drama schools and the way I was treated wasn’t nice. Some very hurtful and racist comments were made towards me. I have always tried to push for diversity, not just for myself but other people,” he says.

“People opened doors for me, and I would like to leave a legacy of opening doors for other people. It’s been tough but I really hope it’s moving in the right way. I think it is but there’s so much more to be done.”

Interview by Steve Pratt