In our eternal quest for the best in theatre, Mrs Chrisparkle and I sneaked a couple of treat nights away in London to see all three shows currently playing at the National Theatre. We started off with the show for which I had the least expectations – but which turned out to be a seat of your pants emotional thrill-ride from start to finish – Phil Porter’s stage adaptation of Hamed Amiri’s 2020 book The Boy with Two Hearts. A co-production with the Wales Millennium Centre, it was first seen on stage in October 2021, and now, a year later, it is playing at the National Theatre’s Dorfman Theatre to spread its message of love to brand new audiences.
A true story, Hussein, Hamed and Hessam Amiri, together with their parents Mohammed and Fariba, lived as best they could in Herat, Afghanistan, under the Taliban rule. A normal family, but as if it wasn’t bad enough living under the Taliban, they have another significant problem – oldest son Hussein is born with a rare heart condition that can only be treated by specialist surgeons in either the UK or America. After Fariba makes a speech demanding freedom for Afghan women, she becomes the target of death threats from the Taliban and the family has no choice but to escape to save their lives.
What follows is two-and-a-quarter hours of anxiety-fuelled, nail biting excitement as we desperately hope the family can make their way through Europe, at the mercy of traffickers and thieves, but also sometimes assisted by genuinely kind people. Spoiler alert – but it’s not that much of a surprise really – they do make it to the UK. But what is the hope for Hussein and his heart, and can the NHS work its wonders and give him a life?
This beautiful adaptation takes this both horrific and delightful story and tells it with such lucidity and animation that it is a joy to watch from start to finish. In many ways, it’s a production like none other I’ve ever seen. For example, inventive use of projected surtitles throughout the play not only makes you aware of the continuous changing from English into Farsi and other languages, it also breathes life into your imagination to see aeroplanes taking off, or a road of busy traffic – you have to see it to appreciate it, but I’ve never seen titling used so eloquently.
Singer Elaha Soroor joins the actors on stage to provide a moody, atmospheric soundtrack of Iranian/Afghan music; this, combined with Hayley Grindle’s versatile set, Amy Mae’s evocative lighting and Amit Sharma’s creative and sensitive direction, makes for a true visual and aural feast. The writing is clear, pacey, and with a perfect balance between the humour of warm family life and the atrocity of the real world just outside; and I really liked the way the play ended up in the here and now with the brothers writing their book about their experiences.
The five actors who play the various members of the family, but also the many strangers and familiar faces they meet on their way, work as a stunning ensemble. They move seamlessly from their main character to another by a simple change of a hat or the donning of a jacket. They also drive the story forward by occasionally breaking into what I can only describe as drama-school music and movement sequences. I mention it, because whenever I have seen it done before it always looks artificial and – I don’t know, is there a polite word for wanky? But here it really works and gives the dramatic tension an extra dimension.
Each of the five actors brings immense warmth and understanding to their role. Houda Echouafni is brilliant as Fariba, constantly caring for her family, always alert to danger, always the first with both a comforting word or a disciplinary ticking-off. Dana Haqjoo, also, is superb as the father Mohammed; a natural authority, an indulgent smile, a brave planner of escapes, the ultimate in resourcefulness. Ahmad Sakhi plays Hussein; as the oldest boy he too has an authority over his brothers and conveys Hussein’s essential seriousness, an inevitability of balancing childhood fun with a life-threatening health condition. Farshid Rokey as Hamed and Shamail Ali as Hessam have the joint challenge of portraying children (Hamed is ten and Hessam is seven when the play starts) who have adulthood thrust upon them too early in life. They are all 100% convincing in their roles.
At the beginning of the interval Mrs C turned to me and said if Hussein doesn’t make it to the end, I’m going to have a bloody good cry. No spoilers again, but there’s no question this is a thoroughly emotional experience; fast paced, with the fear of disaster around every corner, and an exploration of the love within a family and by strangers outside the family. And it’s supported by a hugely creative and vigorous production with fantastic performances throughout. If you think refugee is a dirty word, this just might make you think again. It’s what theatre is all about.
Production photos by Jorge Lizalde