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Watermill - Arabian Nights

1st December 2004 to 8th January 2005.

From the Newbury Weekly News.

Heads or tales, it’s a Watermill winner

Arabian Nights, at The Watermill, until Saturday, January 8

All the world’s a stage, they say, and the Watermill’s, with its sumptuous silks, Moroccan lamps and laundry baskets was beautifully set for some seeds of Middle Eastern wisdom.

And as lopped heads relentlessly fell with the scimitar’s swipe, the comedy rolled on.

You may think the oft-told tales of the Arabian nights familiar, but writer Neil Duffield, responsible for the last two Christmas shows, has taken them, shaken them and spilled them like a bag of beans.

Not 1001 nights of stories here, but 1,000 morning-after severed heads before the kinda-cute but frustratingly unassertive Shahryar begs the perfectly piquish Sultan Shahzaman (his control-freak elder brother who is venting bitterness at his lately-lamented wife’s infidelity) for a night off from the decapitation of his new brides.

With all other candidates having fled, the Grand Wazir’s two daughters enter the frame and the boys get more than they bargained for. Sheherazad has a game plan.

The five-strong troupe of actor/musicians grasped Arabia by the throat and with brass, strings and drums conjured up the desert airs, romping through their dual roles to act out the end to end epic until reality and imagination blurred into one.

This show is simpler than the previous two and richer for it. The production team proved that they have the measure of the space.

Saturday’s audience of grans and children entered into the spirit and became enthralled by Sheherazad’s ripping yarn. The Watermill can notch up another winner.


From The Times.

Four stars
Neil Duffield’s third Christmas show at this enchanting waterside theatre is his best yet. The exploits of Ali Baba — “Open Sesame” and so forth — make up the main story, but Duffield adds a twist to the familiar tale of Sheherazade that frames it. Her wife-slaying Sultan is presented as a reluctant killer, under the thumb of his vengeful brother, whose wife has proved faithless. With this neat invention Duffield gives himself two contrasting Sultans, one simple, the other forceful, who will later find themselves acting out the Ali Baba story, where again there are contrasting brothers.

Even before this story within a story gets going, the stage looks like a cave of oriental marvels. The floor is unevenly sloped, as though centuries of sand have been blown in, and the objects scattered about invite our curiosity. What will turn out to be inside that very large basket, that brass pot, that marquetry chest? Who will put on that excellent turban, sprawl across that sumptuous cushion, don that gold-banded gown?

Answers to these questions arrive in time, but first we must learn about the two brother Sultans, and by a mysterious alchemy Duffield and his director, Andy Brereton, enable the cast to turn what could be a savage prologue into a sequence of lively episodes. They bring mime to it (a comic caravan of camels), pleasing songs from Janie Armour and bits of theatrical nonsense. A horseman riding around on a broom is a joke that never fails with young audiences.

The slaughter of the brides is not soaped over but we imagine it for ourselves, watching a succession of moons sink and suns rise, accompanied by the whoosh of an executioner’s sword. And while Ryan Coath’s bad brother is suitably horrid, both as a bullying Sultan who can’t resist a good story and as Ali’s greedy brother who can’t turn his back on a pot of gold, it is because Matthew Woodnatt ’s humbler brother manages to remain likeable (in spite of depopulating his city of maidens) that the framing story keeps a fairytale charm.

As soon as Sarah Groarke’s Sheherazade starts spinning her web of tales the brothers are caught. Time and again Coath’s body becomes statuesquely rigid as his addiction to revenge fights its losing battle with curiosity. Ironically, when Woodnatt’s Ali decides at last to be macho, he still can’t win. The wit of his bright-eyed slave-girl (Natasha Moore) and a wild healer woman (Groarke again) sort things out, showing what good eggs women are even if the occasional Sultana is a bad apple.

A good story, colourful and exciting, clearly told but with ingenious details. A treat.


From The Guardian.

Three stars
Those expecting more than one story may feel short-changed, but this pocket-sized version of the tale of the woman who, by drawing on the power of storytelling, managed to keep her head when all around were losing theirs, is charm itself.
Neil Duffield's play is both robustly comic and serious in its consideration of smart women who know how to get the upper hand, brotherly relationships and greed. Most of all, it explains the behaviour of a king who, betrayed by his own wife, decides all women are untrustworthy and so persuades his reluctant younger brother to marry every night and murder every morning.

Women Are the Root of all Evil is a jaunty musical number whose message is soon disproved by the cunning of Sheherazade and the quick wit of the slave girl Marjiana. Men get their just deserts and women their hearts' desire.

There may be fabulous treasures and genies in abundance, but there is no magic formula to this play: it is merely simple, straightforward storytelling, done very well. Andy Brereton's good-looking production is sometimes a little too busy for the tiny stage and occasionally encourages the actors to overplay the comedy, but he conjures caravans of camels and furious genies out of smoke and puppetry. In revealing everything, the magic is all the greater.

Duffield has interwoven the familiar and the less familiar so you get a real sense of a never-ending story, and he has a gift for combing the accessible and down to earth with the mythic in a single sentence. It is a small show, but one of transformations and pleasures constantly reminding us that when one story ends another begins.


There is a review by The Stage ("beautifully staged and intriguingly performed").