The Beekeeper of Aleppo review – harrowing refugee tale reaches the stage

Christy Lefteri’s bestseller The Beekeeper of Aleppo is a powerful story but does it make good theatre? Her 2019 novel, inspired by two summers spent working in a refugee camp in Athens, has now been adapted by Nesrin Alrefaai and Matthew Spangler. The tale of beekeeper Nuri and his wife Afra’s nightmarish journey from Syria to England may be harrowing in its components but Miranda Cromwell’s touring production doesn’t do enough to support the script’s gut-wrenching chronology; it feels formulaic and lacks finesse.

The dialogue is often rapid and expressive. We dart from Nuri’s once blissful life to the crowded camps of Greece and then on to meetings with uncaring immigration officers on British shores. The words paint a graphic, panoramic portrait of his shattered and traumatised mind. Memory, illusions and reality become one, with voices from his past bleeding into his present. As Nuri, Alfred Clay is aptly emotionally unavailable – when his wife (Roxy Faridany) tries to touch him, we feel her pain as he slowly backs away. With expert sound design by Tingying Dong, Nuri’s inner thoughts become glaring.

However, there is a stiffness and sense of detachment to the staging. Lacklustre video projections appear on the sandy coloured stage, playing buzzing bee footage as Nuri reminisces about his beautiful homeland. “A bee hive is a paradise,” he gushes; their comforting hum and rhythm is a memento from the world they’ve left behind. The actors are peculiarly too choreographed when they perform their sea crossing in lifeboats. With Nuri’s account such a torturous one, you would expect to feel the effect more acutely. That you don’t is jarring. It is only the playing of real video footage from war-torn Syria that makes us catch our breath.

But while the production’s visual style is not as moving as it could be, there is still a power in this refugee tale and with the recent earthquake affecting Syria, the story has taken on harrowing new relevance. The play is a snapshot of the horror the country and its people continue to endure.

• At Nottingham Playhouse until 25 February and on tour until 10 June.