The Beekeeper of Aleppo – Richmond Theatre, London

Reviewer: Jane Darcy

Writer: Christy Lefteri, Adaptor:

Nesrin Alrefaai, Matthew Spangler

Director: Miranda Cromwell

Christy Lefteri’s best-selling novel of 2019 The Beekeeper of Aleppo, adapted for stage by Nesrin Alrefaai and Matthew Spangler is a moving story about a young Syrian couple, Nuri and Afra, forced to flee worn-torn Aleppo and seek asylum in Europe.

Nuri’s closest friend and fellow beekeeper Mustafa (a warm Joseph Long) goes before them, reaching England and settling in Yorkshire. Having lost his beloved hives in Aleppo, Mustafa is finally able to set up a new colony. Bees have long since offered us a vision of an ideal community in which all work for the good of one another and Lefteri draws strongly on this tradition.

Nuri, energetically played by Alfred Clay, is as enchanted with bees as Mustafa, but he and Afra face a more difficult journey. Something catastrophic has damaged Afra’s eyes leaving her blinded. blind. Nuri cares for her tenderly at first, but their private sorrows start to drive a wedge between them.

The journey itself, its epic nature reinforced by references to Odysseus, forms the main part of the play. Although full of incident, the episodic nature of these scenes belongs more to traditional storytelling than drama. Thus, despite the intensity of what the couple endure, dramatic tension at times wanes.

There is fluidly, however, in the setting, scenes moving back and forth from Nuri and Afra’s life in Syria before and during the war, their time as refugees in Greece and the disappointments of their new, temporary life in an English seaside town. Gradually a picture is built up of what has happened to them. There are several scenes which depict frustrating encounters with officialdom – through both bureaucratic inconsistencies and frankly cruel lines of questioning in which Nuri is repeatedly interrogated to prove he is really from Syria. Although these scenes suggest a disquieting refusal to treat immigrants as fellow humans, their impact is reduced by some broad caricaturing of these officials.

The book works by an accumulation of small, intimate scenes all narrated by Nuri, some of which only happen in his imagination. This interior first-person narrative is difficult to present on stage, and the necessity of cutting much original material means that scenes can feel undeveloped. Afra’s part, in particular, is underwritten. The ensemble works hard to suggest a variety of different characters, but their limited number mean that the context can feel thinly painted. There is a tendency to spell out what is already clearly implied – as, for example, when a character talks of everyone being trapped in their own hell.

What the stage can excel at, however, are the sensory aspects of theatre. Ruby Pugh’s set work well to suggest domestic life in Aleppo and Ben Ormerod’s sensitive lighting allows its transformation into a series of meagre refugee temporary shelters. Most brilliantly, Ravi Deepres’s film design projects mesmerising scenes over the whole set, memorably when the refugees embark on a terrifying sea voyage created by vivid footage of turbulent, roiling seas.

Runs until 6 May 2023

The Reviews Hub Score

traditional storytelling

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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