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Review: The Beekeeper of Aleppo at Liverpool Playhouse ****

It’s a decade since Matthew Spangler’s adaptation of The Kite Runner first landed on the Liverpool Playhouse’s stage and five years since its last visit.

But perhaps unsurprisingly there’s a similar simmering feel of that earlier piece in Spangler’s latest project for Nottingham Playhouse (in association with the E&P); co-writing - with Nesrin Alrefaai - a stage version of Christy Lefteri’s powerful novel The Beekeeper of Aleppo, a story of destruction, displacement and despair – and the ultimate resilience of the human spirit.

The beekeeper of the title is Nuri (Alfred Clay), but we first encounter him not in the ancient Syrian city but in an English coastal resort where he and wife Afra (Roxy Faridany), mysteriously rendered blind, are two of a league of nations of refugees corralled in limbo together in tatty bed and breakfast accommodation, navigating combative questions from immigration officials and ‘chin up’ platitudes from forcibly cheery case workers.

Thus the story starts at the (almost) end, and navigates its way back there over the course of the play’s two-hour running time in episodic fashion, Nuri narrating the course of the couple’ perilous 2,500-mile journey across land and sea.

Life is good in early 2000s Aleppo where he nurtures his busy buzzing charges and artist Afra sells her colourful paintings to tourists in the old souk.

There are scented days amid the hives and, at night, family meals with the warm-hearted Mustafa (Joseph Long, who is also excellent as a Moroccan craving a new British life) where Nuri and Afra’s young son Sami plays happily with his young cousins.

Above: Nuri (Alfred Clay) and The Beekeeper of Aleppo cast. Top: A perilous journey. Photos by Manuel Harlan.

But then comes March 2011 and their world turns upside down - and keeps tumbling through rubble and rushed departures, a changing landscape of cattle trucks, overcrowded dinghies, refugee camps and city parks, populated by brutal fighters, mercenary people smugglers, wily opportunists, well-meaning NGO workers and fellow lost souls. A world where there are plenty of humans, but not always much human kindness.

In the middle of this, the traumatised couple confront physical danger, but suppress their emotional pain in increasing isolation from each other; one spiralling, one stoic.

What is real and what is imagined intermingle in Nuri’s tale which is played out in physical theatre style on Ruby Pugh’s set, whose landscape of incongruous furnishings half-embedded in stony/sandy mounds brings Shelley’s Ozymandias to mind.

It’s sympathetically lit by Ben Ormerod, juxtaposing the imagined idyll of sunny Syrian days with the washed out greyness of their new reality, while Tingying Dong has created a soundscape of street sounds and evocative vocals.

While it might have been a more immediately visceral experience on a thrust stage rather than behind the invisible bounds of a proscenium arch, it still creates an effective backdrop to what is a compassionate and at times gripping depiction of the worst – and best – of humanity.

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