The unrelenting pursuit of a refugee towards a safe haven is powerfully portrayed in Amit Sharma’s staging of The Boy With Two Hearts (based on the true story by Hamen and Hessam Amiri), but in so doing, the fast-paced production leaves little time for the emotions many of us associate with such a perilous journey.
There’s undoubtably a sense of urgency to the family’s predicament: the eldest of the three brothers and the ‘boy’ in the play’s title, Hussein (Ahmad Sakhi), has ventricular tachycardia, arrhythmia or – simply put – an abnormal heart rhythm. The idea of him having two hearts comes from father Mohammed (Dana Haqjoo), who suggests one heart holding him back, the other driving him forwards.
In a way, one might expect a fine balance between the two in terms of pacing – the persistent push ahead and the reflection on the life left behind – but the former gets no more than fleeting mentions amid the constant scene changes of the first act. It only takes effect in the second half, when scenes freeze frame, the spotlight is on specific characters for exposition about the gruelling challenges they face (the risk that comes with tying a shoelace is particularly striking), yet it feels a little too late to deliver the devastating conclusion it intends to.
Not least because everything else is so fast. Lights flash in a frenzy across the stage; clever and inventive creative captions – often embodying the sounds they are replicating – illuminate a screen in the centre; hidden compartments in Hayley Grindle’s set design are tense, tight and claustrophobic; and actors double-up as family members and those offering help along the way with nothing more than a change of jacket.
These “handlers” take many forms: often demanding money and sometimes carrying guns, but always managing to get them so far on their journey to the UK. We can understand why Hamed (Farshid Rokey) is distrustful of people when he eventually arrives here, in one of the more developed characteristics, but we could have done with more background to the characters beyond their love of football – particularly Man U. Singer Elaha Soroor, meanwhile, makes scenes tense and atmospheric with her impressive, aching vocals.
For the show’s titular role, Hussein spends a lot of time in the background for most of the family’s escapade, only brought to the fore when he suffers one of his many ‘attacks’. As such, when he undergoes surgery in act two, it’s more the trepidation over his odds at survival which captures our attention, rather than a strong emotional connection which is hard to form when there is no real protagonist in the story, but a collective narrator.
It’s perhaps another nod to the supposedly circular nature of the play explained in its conclusion (even if the family moves straight from A to B), but to balance the factual with the emotive, The Boy With Two Hearts would have done well to have had a few more pauses – or rather, beats – along the way.
The Boy With Two Hearts is now playing at the Dorfman Theatre until 12 November.
All performances come with creative captions and recorded audio description. Live audio described performances will take place on 3 and 12 November, with a British Sign Language interpreted performance on 9 November.
Production Images: Jorge Lizalde / studiocano.co.uk.
Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘The Boy With Two Hearts’ for free in exchange for a review of the performance as a member of the press. I did not receive payment for this article and all opinions stated above are honest and my own.