Arabian Nights at Bristol Old Vic – review

Sonali Bhattacharyya’s adaptation of the classic folktales runs until 6 January

A scene from Arabian Nights at Bristol Old Vic
A scene from Arabian Nights at Bristol Old Vic, © Ellie Kurttz

Theatre is at heart a platform that offers storytelling possibilities. It’s an art form that requires collective imagination, from actors and audience alike. One Thousand and One Nights, later given the more familiar name of The Arabian Nights should be prime material to be turned into theatre gold. Yet something has failed to spark in the Bristol Old Vic Christmas show; the writing is blurry, the stagecraft pedestrian, and performances uneven. As an alternative, more inclusive festive show, designed to be open to all the city communities, it promised much but lands with a tinge of disappointment. There is relatively little festive magic here.

Sonali Bhattacharyya’s adaption homes in on revolution. As the heroine Schere weaves story after story to the despotic King (who has a tendency to marry and then imprison all his brides), the community around her begins to build up the courage to overthrow his corrupted reign. As regime changes in the Arab world continue, there is plenty of contemporary resonance attached to the tale. Unfortunately, the art of stories, fundamentally the key to the original gets lost. The chronicles, of serpents and monsters, dashing heroes and fair maidens quickly become secondary to the revolution, little amuse-bouches rather than a dish. In and of itself, casting its eye on the political is admirable, but at a time when the theatre will be inviting coachloads of children in, potentially to encounter their first live experience, the tales that originally included Aladdin and Ali Baba get very short shrift.

Blanche McIntyre’s production is at its most sure in the stories it does tell. Alongside puppet maker Samuel Wilde, there is invention in the moments where we see a massive serpent gorge itself on the King, or where tentacles burst up around the door, in these moments the magic of collective imagination lands. Yet the rest is strangely anaemic, a straight nuts and bolts job where more creative imagination is needed. There is a lot of stand and deliver, never enough wonder. The songs are mostly forgettable, the performers ill at ease singing them. The best festive shows lean into the joy of play, while this seems opposed to it.

That is apart from Nicholas Karimi’s King who almost single-handedly goes about saving it. A spoilt man-child nursing a broken heart after his wife leaves him, he leans into the ham and steals every scene. They say the villains always get the best tunes, and this is true here, the pace noticeably slackens every time he is not around. Patrick Osborne is also a fun physical comedian as advisor Jafar who gradually finds his strength to do what is right. Yasemin Özdemir as the storytelling Schere and relative newcomer Sara Diab as her overlooked but brave younger sister Dina both have their moments but there is little for them to work with, Bhattacharyya’s lines don’t zing and there is little laughter generated across the course of the evening.

You can see what they were going for but the execution has been fluffed. Somewhere along the lines, they’ve lost sight that the two things that make festive shows work are play and magic. For a moment when hundreds of little fairy lights are ignited around the auditorium, and the audience gasps in delight, we see what could have been. The rest of the night is a disappointment.