First published in The Times, Friday December 1 2017
A dramatic reimagining of The Arabian Nights is an intriguing departure from the usual seasonal theatrical fare, even if several of the tales featured in Suhayla El-Bushra’s witty, intricate adaptation – including those of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, Aladdin and the tales of Sinbad the Sailor – are often discovered by young audiences in the form of Christmas shows.
Joe Douglas’s production is a world away from the traditional pantomime, but the show certainly doesn’t lack bawdy humour, often of the scatological variety. Within the opening minutes we watch a pair of mangy marketplace dogs compete as to which can most pungently and elaborately break wind, to squeals of appreciation from the stalls.
Pic: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan
El-Bushra’s script retains the framing device of Scheherazade (played by Rehanna MacDonald) dreaming up tale after tale for the entertainment of a despotic Sultan (Nicholas Karimi). In her version, however, the storyteller is the child of an incarcerated market trader (Neshla Caplan), who infiltrates the palace in an attempt to bargain for her mother’s freedom.
The array of tales woven into the script includes battles with giants, sea creatures and genies, rides on magic carpets and action-packed voyages. Douglas and the production team deploy a variety of techniques to convey the most fantastical elements, including animation, puppetry, video and beautiful, transformative lighting from Mark Doubleday. Technically, the show is seamless without relying overly on flashy visual effects. The versatile, nine-strong cast is energetic, choreographed to precision and the engaging storytelling is enriched by lively music and songs, composed by Tarek Merchant, and gorgeous set and costume design by Francis O’Connor.
Pic: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan
Meanwhile, El-Bushra’s dramatisation feels like one of those that will find life beyond this world premiere. It is perfectly pitched in its tone and use of humour while taking risks with structure. One scene, in which the company stretches the story-within-a-story premise to its limits, incorporating some half-dozen short tales and making us wait for each cliff-hanger to be resolved, is particularly audacious, staged with such bravado that the audience members, young and old, easily keep hold of the threads. The show is a real achievement: an exhilarating magic carpet ride through a cornucopia of storytelling.