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Theatre Review: The Arabian Nights ***

Michael Cox reviews a production that's 'hit and miss'.

The idea of bringing The Arabian Nights to stage, particularly during the winter holidays, is terrific. Filled with recognisable characters and plots full of wonder and humour, it serves as a wonderful alternative to the continuous re-tread of fairy tales and Roald Dahl stories that normally invade the season.

And it would be nice to report that the production is a triumph. Alas, this is where our story takes an unfortunate turn—it’s hit and miss at best.

There are many things to enjoy here. The design is mostly successful, with projections, sweeping set pieces, colourful costumes and charming puppets making for a fun-looking production. And many of the popular tales are told with fun pizzazz throughout, thanks to its likeable cast.

But it’s also a story that has trouble getting off the ground. We start in a market, full of jovial people who will all be put under arrest for breaking many of the feared sultan’s ridiculous rules. Our hero Scheherazade, presented in the beginning as a brat, must find a way of freeing them. But how? Using her wits and her imprisoned mother’s ability to spin yarns, Scheherazade begins telling the Sultan and his guards stories as a way to earn trust and gain entrance into the palace.

It’s a much gentler and more family-friendly device than the source material’s original frame, but it works. And it also nicely stresses the importance stories have in our culture. But with forgettable songs and a first act that sputters, it’s a production that’s difficult to fall in love with.

Much improves in the second half. Scheherazade’s stories become much more relevant due to raised stakes, and many of the tales twist themselves into fun knots that are a joy to watch unfold while being playfully staged. It’s just a shame the play ends on the energy and pace it should have begun on.

The Arabian Nights performs at the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh until January 6th.

Tags: theatre

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