Watermill - Arabian Nights
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Watermill - Arabian Nights

22nd November 2012 to 6th January 2013.

Review from The Times.

Three stars
If the bigger, brasher seasonal jollity of panto doesn’t appeal, and you’re after some gentle entertainment for the little ones, then Toby Hulse’s adaptation of a small selection of adventures from the Persian classic One Thousand and One Nights could prove as welcome and snug as a Christmas stocking. Intimate, sweet-natured, with a sprinkling of light humour, its whimsy and likeable low-tech theatrical magic will delight young children; older ones and their parents may sometimes find the tales a little tame. But Robin Belfield’s production is performed with nimble appeal by an ensemble of six in the Watermill’s hallmark actor-musician style, and its simplicity and playfulness give the show plenty of old-fashioned charm.

Amid glittery minarets, the tyrannical King Dara al-Saeed (Tarek Merchant) brings home his bride, Princess Cyra (Amanda Wilkin), and promptly locks her up, having only married her because it is a condition of keeping his crown. Legend has it that a single, special story has the power to thaw the king’s frozen heart; and though the 1,001 impaled heads of unsuccessful storytellers displayed on his battlements mutely bespeak the odds against it, Princess Cyra is convinced that she can restore her husband’s humanity. So, with the help of a hakawati or storymaker (Kit Orton), her retinue of loyal slaves, jaunty songs by Simon Slater and a dressing-up box, she sets about weaving the “one true tale” that will win his love.

Despite the king’s homicidal tendencies, it’s all genially daft, with props ranging from stuffed toys to pots and pans and festive baubles, although the stories don’t gather much momentum until the second-act retelling of Aladdin. That tale allows Wilkin to transform herself with relish from pretty, plucky princess into streetwise rascal, a role she imbues with the edgy comic swagger of Vod from Channel 4’s Fresh Meat.

The show’s pleasures are placid rather than thrilling, but by the end it’s not just the glacial monarch who melts.

SAM MARLOWE

Review from the Newbury Weekly News.

Full of Eastern promise

The Watermill's Arabian Nights is a box of delights

Arabian Nights, at The Watermill, Bagnor until January 6

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 and 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 scenery-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.

CATRIONA REEVES

Review from the British Theatre Guide.

The Watermill Theatre’s Christmas show Arabian Nights is a delicious slice of ‘Turkish Delight’ served up by six highly talented actor musicians who brought smiles to the eager enthusiastic children and their parents and grandparents.

Even the rising flooded river Lambourn that surrounds the theatre and the torrential rain could not dampen the many youngsters’ spirits, and what a treat was in store for them.

This is Toby Hulse’s third Christmas season at the Watermill and he has chosen some wonderful tales, some well-known and other less so, to adapt. Also returning for a third year is Robin Benfield who brings a freshness and excitement to this production that he inventively and skilfully directs.

Karen Mckeown’s colourful, glittery set of purple and green Eastern turrets with large ‘dressing up’ boxes that contain props and costumes and hanging lanterns in the auditorium perfectly sets the scene.

Tarek Merchant is impressive as King Dara Al-Saeed whose heart is “frozen.” He has heard 1001 stories but none of them is the “true one” that will melt his heart and the luckless storytellers have been put to death.

He has married Princess Cyra, a captivating performance from Amanda Wilkin who is imprisoned in a dungeon and forbidden to retell any tales for fear of being killed.

Kit Orton plays Hakawati, the storyteller, as well as several genies including a Welsh one with a gleeful confidence because, “once the story has started it cannot be stopped before it reaches the end”, and the stories are a joy.

There is the tale of the flying ebony horse with some effective magical puppetry and the hilarious story of the rubbish fisherman that is great fun with Morgan Philpott savouring every moment. He has a great rapport with the audience and plays many characters with finesse including a belly-dancing uncle.

I loved the short tale of the golden bag which had an unexpected and laugh out loud ending.

There are some wonderful one-liners that appeal to the adults such as one actor saying, “I went to RADA” with the witty response from another, “ well I went to ASDA” — all great fun.

All the actors take turns in telling a story. Samantha Sutherland as Kashifah and Rosalind Steele as Shada are superb as the animal-coated chav princesses in a version of Cinderella with Wilkin as a tortoise with an incredible shell. There is a repeated mantra of “beauty isn’t all as we know it” and some classic pieces of slapstick, much to the delight of the audience.

The King is eventually persuaded to tell the story of Aladdin that includes some enthusiastic belly dancing audience participation.

The versatile cast seems to be enjoying the storytelling, with some entertaining asides, as much as the audience and Simon Slater’s original score is performed with gusto by the cast.

If you are looking for an alternative to the traditional pantomime then you could do no better than this fun-filled family entertainment. The Arabian Nights is pure magic.

ROBIN STRAPP

Review 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.

LYN GARDNER

There are reviews from The Stage ("a delightful evening of storytelling... a sprinkling of the legendary Watermill magic"), The Public Reviews ("two hours of pure unadulterated joy for the whole family; a perfect festive treat", 4.5 stars) and Marlborough People ("a riot... a wonderful Christmas treat").