Sunday, December 09, 2012

Nights to remember - review of Arabian Nights at The Watermill Theatre

Arabian Nights at The Watermill, Bagnor, from Thursday, November 22 2012 to Sunday, January 6, 2013

ABSOLUTELY everything that children and grown-ups could wish for from a Christmas show is at play in The Watermill’s production of Arabian Nights. Storytelling, music, audience interaction, jokes, stunning costumes and scenery and plenty of sparkle are combined into a mesmerising two hours of pure entertainment.

Based on the collection of Arabian folk tales of the same name, the six cast members played King Dara Al-Saeed, his unfortunate wife Princess Cyra (based on the royal couple Shahryar and Scheherazade in the original text), The Hakawati (storyteller), and the princess’s three slaves. Locked in a dungeon on her wedding night, Princess Cyra (Amanda Wilkin) and her entourage tell stories to the king (the stunningly handsome Tarek Merchant) in the hope of saving their lives and melting his ice-cold heart.

Lesser-known tales from the Nights, such as The Fisherman and The Jinni and The Prince & The Tortoise (with its undertones of Cinderella and culinary educational facts about roz bil halib - “a delicious rice pudding flavoured with pistachios) were presented along with the better-known Aladdin (pronounced authentically as Ala ad-Din). This story provided an opportunity for some self-referential pantomime moments, with the princess taking on the principal boy role,  characters being transported by Jinni to “the most desolate place on earth - Swindon” and the audience being encouraged to boo the baddy, before being slapped down sharply with “this isn’t The Corn Exchange”.

The princess, storyteller (Kit Orton) and slaves (Morgan Philpott, Rosalind Steele and Samantha Sutherland) threw themselves enthusiastically into their playlets (as you probably would if you had a potential death sentence hanging over you), scrabbling for props in the surprisingly well-stocked dungeon to bring the tales to life, and bickering over their roles. Princess Cyra was prepared to take the role of the “large and ugly” tortoise who found herself married to a prince, with her handmaidens relishing the parts of the preening sisters-in-law who mistreat her. It appears that all are equal when your head might end up on a pole.

As with many Watermill productions, the cast members played their own instruments, performing rollicking songs by composer Simon Slater (the musical director was King Dara himself Tarek Merchant. Talented as well as handsome...). The palace set was relatively simple, giving ample space for the story tellers to create their tales, and there was less scenary-clambering than in some past Christmas shows; but nothing was lost for this, and much was gained.

Arabian Nights (written by Toby Hulse and directed by Robin Belfield, returning to The Watermill for his third Christmas) pulled together a myriad of themes - many nods to the original text’s alternative title of One Thousand And One Nights (telling the whole story would have made for a very long performance); the power of storytelling to allow the listener to discover themselves; the fact that we are all in a story of our own; and the richness of the legends and traditions of a part of the world which may hold some trepidation and misunderstanding for some children.

Overarching all though, is a sense of fun and mischief, and it is never forgotten that this is a treat for all, albeit one that is as rich, nourishing and satisfying as the roz bil halib - so “loved throughout all Arabia”. If I dare say it, having seen a fair few of The Watermill’s Christmas shows over the last decade, Arabian Nights is among the best ever. A shimmering box of eastern delights worthy of a place in Aladdin’s cave of wonders.

  • First published in the Newbury Weekly News on November 29, 2012

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