The Boy with Two Hearts at the National Theatre
The Boy with Two Hearts is the true story of the Amiri family’s journey to the UK from Afghanistan. When their mother, Fariba, speaks out against the Taliban, the family – husband Mohammed and three sons Hussein, Hessam, and Hamed – must leave their lives, their loved ones and their home behind.
It is a journey of hundreds of thousands of miles spent in cramped containers, the boots of strangers’ cars, and the shadows of jungles. These are circumstances where a few seconds can mean the difference between refuge and peril, between life and death. Despite the events taking place in the early 2000s, there’s a sense of unease among the audience in the grim realisation that this is still the reality: to cross borders in order to seek refuge remains a perilous task, and a tragedy that our government seems keen to ignore.
However, the Amiri family’s arrival on UK shores is not the end of their turmoil: they must once again pin their survival on strangers, as their son Hussein seeks treatment for a life-threatening heart condition.
Based on a novel of the same name that was written by the two younger brothers, Hamed and Hessam Amiri, The Boy with Two Hearts is adapted for the stage by Phil Porter. The script sometimes falters by falling too much into narration, as opposed to allowing the story to unwind naturally, and so the audience knows the ending of the story before it arrives. Nevertheless, it remains a compelling production that challenges notions of what it really means to be “at home”. Is it the place we were born, the place we carve out for ourselves, or is it the people we surround ourselves with? The moody, yet atmospheric set design from Hayley Grindle adds to this commentary; the stage is covered in half-open suitcases, and scattered belongings – clothes hanging from rails, footballs made from t-shirts. There’s a whole life scattered across the space, as though somebody has tried to pack up their home and got lost along the way.
Family lies at the heart of the play, and the genuine chemistry shared between each member of the cast furthers this. Houda Echouafni and Dana Haqjoo are powerful in their portrayal of parents pushed to extreme measures to protect their young children, and Ahmad Sakhi, Farshid Rokey and Shamail Ali bring genuinely brotherly banter to the stage. Their arguments are brief reprieves from the severity of each situation, whether they’re sneaking inside the boot of a car or waiting for a doctor’s appointment. Playing characters aged seven to 14, their youthful nature makes what they are experiencing that much more harrowing to the audience.
The momentous journey from one place to the next is often conveyed through movement and musical interludes, where the family are joined on-stage by the ghostly presence of singer Elaha Soroor. Hussein’s “attacks” and sickness are also communicated physically but this can sometimes feel overplayed.
It’s demeaning to argue that the story of their crossing to the UK is familiar – this is something that we have grown to accept as a “norm”, when we should be fighting against it. As such, this production is a wake-up call, especially as it allows viewers to see the families behind the faceless stories on the news.
While often sentimental (how can such a personal story not be?), the production tugs on the heartstrings. It is something its audience will think about often, moving forward.
The Boy with Two Hearts is at the National Theatre from 1st October until 12th November 2022. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.
Watch Hamed and Hessam Amiri discuss the production here: