Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

The Thief of Baghdad

Sarah Woods from a concept by Moira Buffini
Choreographed and directed by Will Tuckett
ROH2 Linbury Studio Theatre Royal Opera House
(2008)

Production photo

In the Linbury Studio Theatre the ROH2 companion piece to The Nutcracker is quite a different concoction - a post-modern dance theatre version of The Thief of Baghdad with inventive design and self-conscious storytelling - written by Sarah Woods from a story concept by Moira Buffini.

An alternative title could be Make Believe. The process of make believe. Have children forgotten how to do that?

No room for cynics or doubting Toms - or Callums in this case. Make believe - find the love in your heart, and everything will turn out right Even a thief can be reformed given the chance.

Scared, lost, and hungry, Megan, her sister Bee, and their friend the thieving Callum, sheltering in a bombed building from the war raging outside, discover a backstage Aladdin's cave of wardrobe baskets, fake food, dressing up clothes, and an old lamp. The building was once a theatre.

Luckily for them, the kindly stage door keeper (Christopher Colquhoun) is on hand to help. He encourages them to create their own story as a diversion from their dire predicament.

Theatre as therapeutic flight from reality; life-enhancing theatre as an antidote to war. "What is theatre? It's magic." "It can make you forget you're cold and hungry".

And so their story begins, with false starts and hiccups - Callum refuses to suspend his disbelief and has some difficulty getting in character

Other characters from their story appear ready-formed from the baskets and the bomb crater, out of thin air.

The Sultan (danced by Stephen Sheriff), with a fringed lampshade for a turban, is busy playing with his distracting gift, a marvellous body-popping wind-up toy green plastic commando (danced by Saju), from the evil King of the Mountains. He has no time to worry about his only child. The Princess and her friends must fend for themselves.

Do you see the modern subtext there? Clever, huh? Older children will get it; little ones will only see the dressing-up. Maybe.

The power-hungry King, a slippery slimy panto baddie in black tuxedo, red shirt, and red and black winkle-picker shoes, played to Bob Fosse hilt by Matthew Hart, slithers out of the upright piano to pursue the Princess (played by Bee played by Charlotte Broom), her pet Monkey (Megan / Valentina Golfieri), and Callum (Christopher Marney).

There's the King's army in modern day riot police gear, a flying horse put together very quickly from a couple of sheets and a backpack, the timely appearance of the princess's dead mother (Laura Caldow), the Cave of Horrors with its scary monster made out of hand-held stage light and neon squiggles, flying fish, walking storage jars, and a shape-changing genie.

After too much story - two hours with interval feels too long by at least half an hour - all is resolved by the ingenious stage doorman, who is more than a mere director and storyteller of The Thief of Baghdad. What he is you'll find in the previous sentence - look for the word clue.

With resourceful, ingenious (there's that clue again) period-mixing costumes and props (designer Jon Bausor), souk-inspired music (played by a terrific six-strong band of musicians) from composer Paul Englishby, and lovely dance interspersing the narrative (rather than driving it), The Thief of Baghdad puts children's attention to the test. As well as their eyesight - the lighting is a bit dark.

I was mildly impressed by the conceptualism, and the many talents involved, but the moralising play (what's the good of being rich if everyone else is poor, says the Princess appositely) does need to pick up some dramatic tension - it did begin to drag in the second act.

I was not 'blown away', though the magic carpet ride came close - it has to be seen to be believed - no strings, just smoke and I won't spoil it.

Running until 3rd January, 2009

Reviewer: Vera Liber