Arabian Nights

Karen Louise Hebden
Derby Playhouse

Production photo - Sultan and Shahrazad
Production photo - Ali Baba

When Karen Hebden and Stephen Edwards took over as the creative team at Derby Playhouse just over three years ago, they jettisoned the traditional panto because royalty fees and lavish productions meant it was becoming too costly to stage.

The plan seemed to work when the theatre staged A Christmas Carol in 2003, a stylish, quality piece which appealed to all ages.

Last year, though, the Playhouse offered Merlin and the Winter King, a heavier piece of drama which wasn't suitable for small children. After the success of A Christmas Carol it was extremely disappointing. There were few seasonal references, so the production could have been staged at any time of year.

Now the theatre is giving us Arabian Nights, inspired by the centuries-old tales of A Thousand And One Nights - the stories brought to life by Shahrazad. She was the clever vizier's daughter who volunteered to become the next wife of the Sultan. After his first wife was unfaithful to him, he thought all women were the same and executed them after only one night of marriage. But Shahrazad told cliffhanger tales and withheld the ending. The Sultan agreed she could live another day to finish the story.

Arabian Nights is the Playhouse's second production without a Yuletide flavour. It's not as plodding as Merlin - but it's lacking magic, energy and sparkle.

That's no criticism of the actors, who put everything into the show, nor the musicians who provide an authentic, atmospheric backing. It's the material that's at fault.

The problem with Arabian Nights is that it doesn't know whether it's a serious drama, a family entertainment, a comedy or a musical. There are bits of each genre in the production but the overall effect is an eclectic mix which tries to be too many things to too many people.

The seriousness comes in the subject matter, with Glenn Carter a fitting Sultan who gradually mellows and melts as he succumbs to the love of Shahrazad, sensitively portrayed by Kirsty Yates.

The Story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves and The Story of Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp are, on the face of it, the elements which would prove a hit with all members of the family - but the tales are often wordy and drawn-out. Perhaps the production ought to have included more but shorter tales which might have maintained my interest and injected pace.

The comedy in the Ali Baba tale was almost Pythonesque, with only four actors portraying the forty thieves and pretending to ride horses. There are shades of "the knights who say 'Ni'" - but it's too ambitious to succeed completely. However, I found a scene in which the thieves hide in jars incredibly funny.

As for the music, Carter, perhaps best known for the title role in Jesus Christ Superstar in the West End and on Broadway, eventually breaks into song and does his customary excellent job. But it seems only a cursory contribution; you get the impression that Carter's vocal talents should be used to the full or not at all.

I enjoyed Lucien Macdougall's flying Genie of the Lamp in the Aladdin story and Toni Jane Bysouth's design, a majestic, revolving staircase which dominates the stage.

But as a whole Arabian Nights isn't full of eastern promise. Something more traditional, please, next Christmas.

"Arabian Nights" runs until January 28th

Reviewer: Steve Orme

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