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Theatre review Nights to forget

SIMON PARSONS is disappointed by a budget magic carpet that fails to levitate

Arabian Nights
Bristol Old Vic

ARABIAN Nights is a treasure chest of famous stories (Aladdin, Sinbad, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves) and it therefore comes as a surprise that Sonali Bhattacharyya’s version for Bristol Old Vic’s festive treat jettisons the familiar tales for a modern reworking of Scheherazade's dilemma. 

Lip service is paid to a few of the stories with some Arabian-style narrative songs, a few mythical, puppet creatures and a handful of references to the better known plots but only the central theme of a girl trying to stop a tyrant is fully developed.

The play is not only shorn of its magical pantheon of fantastical heroes, villains and creatures but all the edges are rubbed smooth. The embittered king (Nicholas Karimi) becomes a spoilt, childish brat who no longer executes his new wives but has them put in a dungeon. Otherwise his transgressions mainly involve green issues that are harming his people. 

The strong-willed Scheherazade (Yasemin Ozdemir), renamed Schere, sees no real problems in keeping the king on tenterhooks with her cliffhanger plot devices as there seems to be no other demands on her. Only when her stories run out and she loses her patience are the locals forced to intervene with a bloodless coup that leaves everyone happy.

The cast work hard to overcome the flat, stilted dialogue and clarify the mishmash of environmental issues artificially forced into the traditional multistory format of myths and legends. The occasional gag is unoriginal pantomime fare and does little to aid their efforts.

Hannah Sibai’s multiwindow set design adds a touch of Middle Eastern promise but fails to transform into anything more than a few sliding doors and a lattice work screen limiting the stage area to a fraction of its depth. Samuel Wilde’s puppets create some magic, but everything looks financially constrained.

Blanche McIntyre directs this clunking script as if volume and energy will carry it through, but however commendable the central issues are, the overall effect is disappointing. The neutered story, probably most suitable for primary school-age children, will fail to enchant and comes across as a budget production that is hardly likely to levitate the magic carpet of their imaginations. 

Runs until January 6 2023. Box office: bristololdvic.org.uk

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