Why have one story in your Christmas show when you could have a whole collection of them? In Suhayla El-Bushra’s new telling of The Arabian Nights at the Lyceum, directed by Joe Douglas, a stubborn and resourceful young girl named Scheherazade – played very likeably by Rehanna MacDonald – must use her storytelling to save her mother and the other inhabitants of Baghdad’s marketplace from imprisonment by the Sultan. There’s intrigue. There’s shadow puppetry. There’s a sock genie and dogs making fart jokes. In short, it’s everything you could want from a fun, charming night at the theatre.
The best thing about The Arabian Nights is the great variety in the stories it presents. It revels in the diversity of the source material among the 1001 Nights, and recognises its roots in pantomime without seeming like the usual fare. The humour sometimes feels like it’s nodding to Roald Dahl in its particular combination of sharp-as-a-tack heroine, wordplay, and whimsy. With a plot chock-full of stories within stories, The Arabian Nights is a glorious labyrinth that’s still remarkably easy to follow. The cast switches in and out of various roles with ease and great wit – their energy and enthusiasm is infectious, even if a few of the words in the faster-paced songs occasionally get lost. (I wondered how easy it might be for the younger members of an audience to follow, but all of them in the seats near me seemed to be loving it.) Tarek Merchant’s live music is a great addition and a pleasure to listen to.
The other best thing about The Arabian Nights is that it’s beautiful: Frances O’Connor’s set is laden with geometrically-patterned carpets, giving a strong sense of place while flexible enough to spark the imagination and making great use of clever visual tricks. One highlight is the marrying of shadow puppets with projection; at another point, a person is trapped in a hand-sized glowing bottle, over a rippling ocean. I’m a sucker for a good design, and this one is great. Combine that with brightly coloured costume, and Emma Jayne Park’s exuberant choreography, and it’s hard to look away.
The Arabian Nights is a brightly coloured gem, with a strong cast, and a great atmosphere. It’s an excellent antidote to a dark December.
Photos courtesy of Tommy Ga Ken Wan.
The Arabian Nights runs at the Lyceum Theatre until 6th January 2018.