“The Boy with Two Hearts” is a powerful refugee story, which draws strength from its true roots – the real story of one family escaping from their home to get to the UK. The performance gets some powerful spirit from the energy of its heroes – teenagers, who are just as concerned about escaping the border police, as much as they are about the next football match they see on TV.
A story of a tight-knit family leaving the country because the mother may face death by the ruling Taliban, is practically a cathartic concept by itself. Add to it a feministic message about empowering the women of Afghanistan, and the life-threatening condition of one of the sons, and theoretically, I should be leaving the Dorfman Theatre with my eyes wet and my makeup ruined. Then why didn’t I feel much during this performance?
The grounding reality and raw dialogues balance out the dramatic escape with plenty of humour and radiating love of the Amiri family. I did feel, however, that despite its potential, the show didn’t fully deliver on the emotional front and just scratched the surface of the horrors of refugee journeys in Europe nowadays and in the past.
In light of recent discussions about the refugee system in the UK, as well as an ongoing refugee crisis in Europe, a play based on the real story of an Afghani family escaping to the UK has so much potential and importance. Thanks to its focus on one specific family, it gives much more insight into refugee life than any news report on the TV.
The story is… Just extremely straightforward. The family, afraid for the Mother’s life and Hussein’s health condition (a serious heart issue), decides to sell all their life’s belongings and escape Afghanistan. They get smuggled out of the country in a hidden compartment of a car, and then get thrown into the shady world of human handlers on the borders of Russia and Ukraine. We are with the Amiris when they get stuck in a cold, wet apartment in Moscow, and when they find a temporary home in a refugee camp in Austria. We cheer as they get closer and closer to the UK and the long-awaited NHS treatments.
There were many opportunities to dive deeper into more stories and different emotional states refugees experience. As the family tries to cross the wild border between the two countries, they meet a little girl who shares that her sister “got lost” by the handlers and that it just happens to girls there. The family wishes the girl all the best, one by one, and just moves on. I felt that this was a great start, but an opportunity to focus more on the dangers that can occur to refugees was missed out on.
The story is strongly driven by strong female performances. The mother, played wonderfully by Houda Echouafni, is the one who seems the most real of all and openly showcasing fear and uncertainty. The rest of the family, especially the father (Dana Haqjoo), just go on with the situation and keep the black thoughts to themselves. It’s a shame – because there is so much emotional weight related to being smuggled through half the world – yet we get a visual story of the journey’s stages, but without the strain.
The element which lifts the whole story emotionally on another level is the tribal, enchanting singing by Elaha Soroor. She shadows the actors through the play, and her songs add an almost mystical level to some scenes. The ethnic sounds add a wonderful, touching layer to the play. I would pay for a ticket to a concert just to see Soroor perform live again – no questions asked!
The play is quite long, and frankly feels unnecessarily dragged in the second act – I understand we are meant to follow the family’s story – or rather Hussein’s story till the end, but I found myself wondering “why is the play still on, aren’t the journey and the health problems finished?”. I feel like it could have been 10 min shorter and it wouldn’t lose the main message at all. Some of the scenes in the UK could have been shortened, while still showcasing the main ending.
My last, but very important comment is about the inclusivity of the production – I loved how adapted to different kinds of audiences it way. Subtitles were displayed by default above the stage, and the symbols of journey and modes of transport were shown in a creative graphic way throughout the show. “The boy with two hearts” is a truly accessible show, and not just on the “accessible show night”, but at every performance. Wonderful!
I’m Polish. I’ve been following the stories of people who are in the same situation as the Amiri family, for a while. And I’m so ashamed and terrified that it’s still happening. What’s been happening at the Polish-Belarusian border since 2021 is terrible. Hundreds of families fled their homes in search of a safer life, stuck in the cold, wet forest. Pushed back by both Polish and Belarusian police. Stuck in the no man’s land for months sometimes, dying in terrible conditions.
This is still happening. If you, or your family or friends, see this show and decide that they feel the need to help the refugees stuck in terrible conditions today, the day when you’re reading this, here is a link to an NGO that does a fantastic job on the border at the moment, supporting the refugees and saving lives.
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