I desperately wanted to love Phil Porter’s stage adaptation of the Amiri brothers’ memoir of their family’s escape from Afghanistan – which started in 2000 when the Taliban vowed to execute their mother for speaking in favour of women’s rights. Hamed and Hessam’s odyssey as two young boys (played by Farshid Rokey and Shamail Ali), with their older teenage brother Hussein (Ahmad Sakai) and parents, eventually led them to Cardiff where they settled into school and Hussein graduated from university before succumbing to the heart condition that drove them across continents to seek medical treatment. I was rooting for this story because heaven knows we could do with a little humanity right now. But sadly, as a work of theatre, director Amit Sharma’s production and Phil Porter’s script fail to bring the source material alive beyond an adequately heart-warming tale of the immigrant dream made good. Charming, but ultimately middle-of-the-road verging on saccharine, The Boy With Two Hearts’ lack of depth is a real pity not least because, with over 70 million people currently forcibly displaced – the highest ever recorded by the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees. It’s important to tell stories of persecution, migration and refuge authentically and with dramatic skill. With more people than the entire population of the UK running – traumatised and homeless – for sanctuary as we speak, there is a need for such true stories as the Amiris’ in order to counter the convenient jingoism upon which demagogues and news barons rely. These not need be gory misery memoirs, but you shouldn’t have to be the Von Trapp Family Singers to deserve some attention or compassion either.
It filled me with a kind of sadness that in 2022, the depiction of the Amari family’s flight to safety required a depiction of them as so perfect as to lose the very humanity the story strives for. Do the Amari’s themselves, or Porter as their dramatist, anticipate that one slip from their very best behaviour and theatre-goers will judge this family as the ‘swarming migrants’ that performatively cruel politicians have been polemicising with increasing intensity in the intervening years of this play’s setting and today? How could I possibly feel nostalgic for the last turn-of-millennium as a result of an Afghan refugee story? But to some extent I did. Because the luck (and hope) eloquently explored in the script in some of its finer moments also feels distant and a little rose-tinted.
Whilst Porter’s adaptation of Hamed and Hessam Amari’s book is humane, it is rather superficial. The play opens with Fariba (Houda Echoufani) writing and then delivering a speech denouncing the Taliban’s violation of women’s rights. We get no backstory or further characterisation as to why she does this. Perhaps the story’s simplistic narration reflects how young the boys (only children) were at the time when they were forced to flee, but – whilst occasionally sweet and charming – there is a certain juvenile quality to the entire work. The mother is saintly: perfect, eternally upbeat and entirely one-dimensional. Despite thousands of miles of terrain and endless episodes of terror, the family never squabbles. Robbed, degraded and continually under stress, somehow the Amiri’s are almost constantly upbeat. I appreciate that the writers have eschewed misery porn (despite their natural entitlement to sorrow and rage or any other feeling) but the jolliness of the telling almost makes this play feel even sunnier (but also less dramatic) than that other tale of a family escaping horror: The Sound of Music. This show plods along, amiably, but doesn’t find the theatrical highs and lows the story deserves
Indeed the lovely singing of Farsi songs of home and longing by Elah Soroor give beautiful texture and a sense of art – but not really any further drama. There are moments of suspense and admirable affection delivered by a capable cast in a poetic staging – but I found myself almost nostalgic for the days when ‘refugee’ meant someone in need of refuge. It was also never really explained why it was so crucial they come to the UK and I found myself wondering: were there really no competent cardiologists in Central Europe at the beginning of this century?
Hayley Grindle’s set and costumes and Amy Mae’s lighting give a wonderful texture to this epic. Patriarch, Mohammed (Dana Haqjoo) balances both humour and intensity along with the rest of the cast, but this family’s relentless display of virtue should not be required for an audience to care about them as people. Despite its beauty and the importance of its themes, I found it a little flat and facile.
Review by Mary Beer
Herat, Afghanistan, 2000.
When a young mother speaks out against the Taliban, she and her husband are forced to flee their home and country with their three sons.
Embarking on a long and terrifying journey across Russia and through Europe, they seek final refuge in the UK.
But, as their eldest son’s life-threatening heart condition worsens and requires urgent surgery, their escape soon becomes a race against time.
Amit Sharma directs this widely acclaimed stage version of The Boy with Two Hearts (BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week). Based on extraordinary real-life experiences, it is a powerful story of hope, courage, and humanity – and a heartfelt tribute to the NHS.
The Boy with Two Hearts
A Wales Millennium Centre production
By Hamed & Hessam Amiri
adapted for the stage by Phil Porter
From 1 October to 12 November
Running Time: 2 hours 10 mins incl. interval