1001 Nights

Devised by the company
Unicorn in association with Transport
Unicorn Theatre

1001 Nights

This updated interpretation of some of the tales from the great Arabic collection of stories and folklore dispenses with its framing of a Shah revenging an unfaithful wife by taking a new bride each night and having her executed in the morning. This Schehrazade is a modern girl who just loves books and stories. Her mum and dad try all sorts of ruses to get her to stop reading and come and eat her dinner.

When they manage to snatch her book away they randomly read out from it and she has to say exactly what comes next—and so we are into stories. It is not just Shahrazad, as this version spells her, who can remember stories. Her father is a lively storyteller too. He launches, with lots of acting out, into the story of Abu’s Giant Fart, much to the delight of its target audience of six- to nine-year-olds (and their elders).

This is a happy family but all is not well around them in Damascus. Syria is becoming a war zone and they plan to leave—but only Shahrazad and her father get away, her mother is left behind. The two of them journey across Europe to England and start a new life there.

Dad gets a job but he’s unhappy, staying in at night, mournfully playing his violin. Shahrazad makes a new friend to share stories with, even though they have don’t speak the same language and sometimes have to resort to signs. This Shaharazad’s stories don’t literally save her life but they help to keep her alive and cheerful and are part of home she keeps inside her.

Thomas Padden as father, Ritu Arya as mother (and as Sharahzad’s friend in England) and especially Danusia Samal as Shaharazad are wonderfully animated storytellers. They turn each tale into a game of let’s pretend to share with the audience, soaring away on a magic carpet, jumping down among the rubbish as though into a well or getting a genie back into a bottle.

The production is played on a raised platform above steps that curve down into the depths, a simple set they share with Liar Liar with which it runs in repertory, slightly disguised by piles of trash. Gary Bowman’s lighting provides much of the atmosphere with a huge contribution made by Helen Atkinson’s sound design which gives us the harsh winds of life as well as feeding the imagination, though I wish one short piece of storytelling had not been an awkwardly amplified off stage voice.

This production does not emphasise the Syrian conflict and other Middle Eastern problems but for those old enough to understand the news bulletins, they are there. These are not fairytale figures in fancy dress but people like themselves with family teasing and mobile phones.

Most children like to recognize the familiar and they will certainly recognize the Cinderella story, given not in any of its Arabic manifestations but by the English girl in the version told by the Brothers Grimm and dad adapts one old tale to a new English setting involving Queen Elizabeth and her corgis.

On press night an enthusiastic young audience loved this 1001 Nights and the hard work of director Douglas Rintoul and his team and three hard-working actors gained well-deserved applause.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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