ANY mention of the name Afghanistan tends to elicit the standard images of war, poverty, religious extremism and intolerance.

But it wasn’t always like that. This beautiful central Asian country was once a relatively easy-going land, famed for its spectacular scenery and friendly people. It was, for a while, even a stop on the overland hippy trail to India.

A lot has changed since the end of the 70s, of course, with waves of invasion, extremism, war, brutality and terror, which have ravaged the land, forced millions from their homes and left tens of thousands dead.

It is against the backdrop of that slide from relaxed prosperity to rabid intolerance that The Kite Runner takes place, looking at the tragedy of Afghanistan through the prism of the relationship between two boys.

Amir (Raj Ghatak) is the privileged son of a businessman living in a wealthy neighbourhood of Kabul. Hassan (Jo Ben Ayed) is the son of his father’s servant and his best friend. He is also the best kite runner in Kabul – adept at retrieving the kites brought down in the city’s kite fighting tournaments – a pastime subsequently banned by the joyless fanatics of the Taliban.

Their friendship is touching and movingly portrayed as a narrated memoire by Ghatak, who flits through time, effortlessly assuming the role of the younger and adult Amir – all the time dressed in the same shirt and trousers. Such accomplished stylised minimalism is a hallmark of this punchy production.

Ayed turns in a heartbreaking star performance as the slow-witted, innocent and utterly loyal Hassan, with perfectly observed posture and delivery.

The sickening horror of what befalls him at the hands of the neighbourhood bully is a metaphor for the calamity which hits their country, and unleashes a wave of shame, betrayal and worse.

Matthew Spangler’s accomplished adaptation of Khaled Hosseini’s book moves between Kabul and San Francisco, the scenery of a rough wooden fence deftly transformed into a skyline of skyscrapers through clever lighting.

The characters are also transformed as they grow old while clutching their pride. Amir's dad ‘Baba’ (Gary Pillai) is magnificent as the dapper, larger than life, prosperous businessman and pillar of Kabul society, who is physically broken by the twin evils of the Russian invaders and the bearded fanatics he feared, but scarcely believed, would take power in their wake.

Forced to become a refugee in California, his distaste of American life (complaining of the traffic and smog), his refusal to accept charity handouts and his refusal to let go of the strict social code of the old country are touching, all too believable and faultlessly portrayed. Also excellent is Amiera Darwish as sparky fellow exile Soraya – who is far happier to break free of the less appealing aspects of Afghan culture.

Powerful performances portray a mounting sense of unease – given haunting voice through the evocative music of master tabla player Hanif Khan who sits front of stage throughout.

An incredibly powerful production, it pulls our emotions in all directions as we follow Amir’s tormented life and his search for redemption.

Sweetness and innocence are eclipsed by the most horrifying brutality – just like Afghanistan itself. A towering achievement, then.

If you only see one play this month, make it this one.

Tim Hughes 5/5

* The Kite Runner continues at the Oxford Playhouse until Saturday. Book at