Arabian Nights

Dominic Cooke
Library Theatre Company
The Lowry, Salford

Rokhsaneh Ghawam-Shahidi as Shaharazad Credit: Jonathan Keenan
Emilio Doorgasingh as King Shahrayar Credit: Jonathan Keenan
Tachia Newall and Paul Barnhill Credit: Jonathan Keenan
Kezrena James Credit: Jonathan Keenan
Mitesh Soni Credit: Jonathan Keenan
Paul Barnhill and Jo Mousley Credit: Mitesh Soni

For this year's Christmas show, the Library has transformed The Lowry's Quays Theatre to in-the-round, giving the audience the feel of sitting round the campfire to be told this classic story about telling stories.

Dominic Cooke's adaptation gives the full background tale of King Shahrayar, deceived by his wife, who decreed that he would have a different wife every night and have her put to death by the sword in the morning as his revenge on womankind. Shaharazad persuades her father, the King's Vizier and the man responsible for arranging the executions, to marry her to the King, determined that her stories will keep him from having her executed and therefore save the lives of many more women.

As she tells her tales, we, the audience, see them performed before us. She begins with the most familiar, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, but there are probably many parts of this complex story that most people have forgotten or never knew. The Little Beggar is a comic tale of a chain of people, each of whom believes they have killed the titular character and tries to cover up their deed. Es-Sindibad the Sailor is a story within a story within the main story, as the adventurer relates his adventures to his namesake, a porter.

How Abu Hassan Broke Wind gives away the main event in its title: at a dinner to celebrate his coming wedding, something "slips out" and Abu Hassan flees from his home town in embarrassment. The Wife Who Wouldn't Eat is a gruesome tale featuring a sorceress and a man turned into a dog, and then The Envious Sisters has echoes of Cinderella, Moses in the bullrushes and even A Winter's Tale as the sisters of the title, acting as their younger sister's midwife, tell their brother-in-law the King three times that his wife has given birth to an animal, sending the children down river in baskets.

In The Story Without Ending, Shaharazad tests her husband's resolve to stick to his original order to have her executed as soon as her well of stories runs dry.

The action unfolds on Hayley Grindle's beautiful and highly-colourful set with the remains of painted stone pillars and a large, two-storey truck that is wheeled on and off for various scenes. A large part of the script is narration rather than dialogue, as Shaharazad's story is told by narrators, who in turn tells her stories to the King, and characters within those stories tell stories of their own, which come to life before our eyes.

Amy Leach's production combines colourful spectacle with some rough physical theatre elements, some of which work better than others. There is a whiff of the high school drama class about some ideas, such as using actors in capes in a circle as the treasure cave in Ali Baba. The idea of having actors as merchants mixing with the audience would have been fine if they had done so as the audience entered rather than after the auditorium doors had been closed, creating a weak opening after an already long-delayed start on press night.

While this certainly isn't a show for young children, the whole thing is performed for the most part with a great sense of fun with a touch of self-mocking and a true ensemble feel to the performances. Nine actors play around a hundred different characters, but each gets a chance to shine in at least one major part.

Tachia Newall is wonderful as the jester-like Little Beggar, Paul Barnhill is the adventurous Es-Sindibad, the evil Captain of the Thieves and a very resonant singing tree, Mitesh Soni is a man under pressure both as Ali Baba and as the tailor who is the first to believe he has killed the Little Beggar, Claire Storey is the wicked eldest Envious Sister, Mark Carlisle the embarrassed Abu Hassan and the Vizier and Jo Mousley the clever slave in the Baba household.

At the heart of the outer tale, there are strong performances from Roksaneh Ghawam-Shahidi as Shararazad, Emilio Doorgasingh as King Shahrayar and Kezrena James as Shaharazad's sister, all of whom play other roles in the stories as well. There is some wonderful music accompaniment played live by Arun Ghosh with members of the cast.

Despite a few lulls in the pace, there is a great deal of fun to be had from this show with some real belly-laughs, some touching moments and a few lessons to be learned, all put across by a great ensemble. It is certainly the most successful Christmas show from the Library since it relocated them to The Lowry.

Reviewer: David Chadderton