Writer: Phil Porter from the book by Hamed and Hessam Amiri
Director: Amit Sharma
History may well regard the near 20-year Western occupation of Afghanistan as a brief interlude in which the Taliban was given a rest. The Boy with Two Hearts, a play by Phil Porter which is adapted from a factual book by Hamed and Hassam Ariri, goes back to the year 2000 when, as now, the Taliban ruled without compassion and women were denied the most basic human rights. The play was performed originally at Wales Millennium Centre.
Fariba Amiri (Houda Echouafni), a mother of three boys living in the city of Herat, has the courage to speak out publicly against the repression of women. Her husband, Mohammed (Dana Haqjoo), a sturdy patriarch, supports her, as do the boys, but word reaches the authorities and the family is left with no option but to flee the country, hidden in the boot of a car. They are not sure where they will end up, possibly America, but more likely the United Kingdom, where the youngest son could realise his dream of playing for Manchester United.
The journey is made more difficult, because the oldest son, Hussein (Ahmad Sakhi), suffers from a life-threatening heart condition. The younger sons, Hamed (Farshid Rokey) and Hessam (Shamail Ali), behave as if the hazardous journey is an adventure, as the family finds its way across Russia, on to Ukraine, through Germany and, despite repeated warnings to go nowhere near Calais, they find themselves in Calais.
The story plays out like a road trip movie, but it is real, made more so by five remarkably strong performances. The actors also step out of their main roles to play subsidiary characters and, rather than this becoming a distraction, it adds to the lightness and fluidity of director Amit Sharma’s engrossing production.
It could be that more recent horror stories of people-smuggling, perilous Channel crossings and so on have numbed the senses, making this story less shocking than perhaps it should be. The writers tell us of the struggles and degradation endured by this family, but Sharma’s production falls short in making us feel their anguish and jeopardy, while it does not quite achieve the levels of suspense which the first act needs. However, the production more than compensates by allowing us to share the warmth of a family unit that is bonded together by love and humour.
The Dorfman’s stage is extended to its full width and height to accommodate Hayley Grindle’s split-level set design, which gives a darkened background to all the action and includes projections of smart graphics and surtitles. Sharma keeps the space busy throughout. Interspersed with the drama are songs in traditional Afghan style, composed and sung beautifully by Elaha Soroor.
The Boy with Two Hearts tells a story which resonates powerfully in a modern world in which people displacement only seems likely to increase. However, the play is primarily about the emotional journey of one family and its grip grows progressively stronger as the five characters become more finely drawn. The play is heartfelt and heartwarming, twice over.
Runs until 12 November 2022