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The Beekeeper of Aleppo: powerful & moving

When clashes over pro-democracy protests in Syria escalate to civil war in 2011, the peaceful life of beekeeper Nuri and his artist wife Afra is shattered.

The beautiful city of Aleppo is bombed and burned, the bee hives are destroyed, the market where Afra sells her paintings is flattened, and they witness atrocities in their own neighbourhood.

That’s the nightmarish reality which faces the central characters in The Beekeeper of Aleppo, which opened to an appreciative and clearly moved audience at the New Theatre last night (Tuesday 28 March).

Nuri (Alfred Clay) and Afra (Roxy Faridany) have no choice but to flee, and the play – adapted by Nesrin Alrefaai and Matthew Spangler from Christy Lefteri’s best-selling novel – follows them on their terrifying journey to reach a cousin in the UK.

Nuri is also the narrator – a demanding role at the centre of the story, hardly ever off stage. And Alfred Clay delivers a superb performance – warm and engaging, brave, yet vulnerable, and at times, desperate, making the audience ask ‘how would I act if faced with this all this?’.

To make matters worse (if that’s possible), Afra has lost her sight in a bomb explosion – no longer able to see the world which she once painted so strikingly, and which has it seems, in any case, now lost all its beauty.

Roxy Faridany is convincing as this independent woman initially reluctant to leave her home, who becomes reliant on her increasingly emotionally distant husband.

The story is told in a non-linear timeline, so we jump back and forward from the cramped shared house for people seeking asylum in England (where they face confusion, bureaucracy, and the fear of being sent back) to their simple, but loving home in Aleppo, and various places in between.

Those places include the back of a cattle truck to get out of Syria, an unwelcoming village in Turkey, a treacherous sea crossing in an overcrowded boat to Greece, a dangerous camp in a park in Athens, and potentially even more dangerous digs with a smuggler.

But these jumps are never confusing, and the ingenious set design by Ruby Pugh transports us instantly to these very different locations, with the help of often powerful film clips projected on to the scenery.

Directed by Olivier Award-winning Miranda Cromwell, the supporting cast works hard, sharing multiple roles, and all deserve high praise for their remarkable versatility – Joseph Long, Nadia Williams, Daphne Kouma, Elham Mahyoub, Aram Mardourian, Fanos Xenofós, and Lily Demir.

This is a challenging play, which takes the audience on an emotional – as well as a physical – journey. It’s a story of violence, loss, and exploitation. But there’s also compassion, love, and hope.

It’s powerful, thought-provoking, and moving. I urge you to see it if you can.

The Beekeeper of Aleppo runs at the New Theatre until Saturday (April 1). You can buy tickets from the box office on 0343 310 0041 or online here.

Review by Andy Weltch

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