views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Arabian Nights
The Blue Elephant Theatre
29th November 2013


Photography supplied by the Blue Elephant Theatre

We know we sing its praises far too often, but the Blue Elephant Theatre has once again thought outside of its little black box. As per last year, the theatre hasn't fallen to fascist festive tradition that demands a pantomime run in December, inevitably starring some tedious Z-list celeb like CJ from Eggheads. Nope, as with A Midsummer Night's Dream previously, they've booked something evocative of a hazy heat at total odds with the Yuletide, but still undeniably apt and with all the irreverence of a good panto. I'm talking, of course, about Hammer and Tongs Theatre's exquisite Arabian Nights.

The first clue you're about to be dazzled comes in what designer Bethany Heaton has done with the space - all richly coloured sheets, patterned paper lanterns and a bright carpet. Coupled with musician George Mackenzie-Lowe's evocative guitar playing, it's a heady sight. All that was missing was some burning incense wafting throughout the room but with the volume of paper and fabric all over the place, the omission was probably health and safety gone perfectly reasonable, thank you very much. I guess it would have given that authentic blazing sun feeling though...

As with the tales themselves, the troupe (George Clarke, Helen Foster, Suzie Grimsdick, Kate Millest and James Weal) construct the narrative framework of the tale of Scheherazade (Millest) and her husband, the King (Clarke). Knowing of the King's proclivities towards removing his wives' inconvenient noggins after being cheated on, Scheherazade (who, conveniently for me, tells everyone to call her Shaz) attempts to escape her fate by telling him stories each night at time of execution. So we then have plays within a play, including Sinbad, the Story of the Bull, Donkey and Merchant, the Craftsman and Ebony Horse and a couple of others - including nods to Aladdin. They all have one thing in common, though. They're all the lighter side of the Nights tales, fantasy and comedy, trading - as the original stories did - in euphemism, satire and craziness. There's no Three Apples crime drama here. And if there were, I wouldn't doubt the funny five could make it bonkers.

Kate Millest, George Clarke and Helen Foster as a three-headed genie

Photography supplied by the Blue Elephant Theatre

There's a sense of convention here, with many of the tick-boxes present and correct. We have Shaz as the storyteller, but also have the actors another stage removed as narrators, creating Inception levels of plays within plays. The only slight departure is the more didactic introductions to the stories, the first between Shaz and her father (Weal) being the most obvious. But to be honest, structure, recursion and even the themes of the myths are thrown out if it's not conducive to having a good time. And with their anarchic, Reduced Shakespeare Company sensibilities, have a good time you do. In fact, the audience had such a fantastic time, the applause didn't stop, forcing the troupe into an apparently impromptu second bow.

Much of the laughs come from the sheer gusto thrown into everything. From incongruous, ridiculous accents - never the same twice - to wordy and pointlessly over-scientific explanations to magic, no line has been crafted or delivered without giving full weight to maximising laughs. Sharp and witty director Jennifer Rose Lee gives the players a perfect opportunity to show off their formidable skills in physical theatre, whether that be Clarke, Foster and Millest coming together in weird, perfect harmony as a genie, Weal's existentialist French crab or Foster's Aisling Bea-style huge expressions and Lord Flashheart impression. It's all backed by Mackenzie-Lowe on his guitar, sitar and in one technically crisp throwaway visual gag, the teacup and saucer. That attention to detail, alongside the sincerity and joie de vivre of the group - are what sells Arabian Nights the most. Even in the one or two lines that just miss the mark (to continue the Blackadder references, the King should be played more like George to get away with some of his lines) everything else papers over the almost imperceptible cracks.

It's refreshing and heartwarming to see such an uncontroversial, all-ages show be so funny, but like the greats at Pixar or writers of The Simpsons show, it's entirely possible. If you want one last ray of sunshine before your chestnuts start roasting on an open fire, scoop up the family and head to the Blue Elephant for the best not-panto you'll see this year.

Arabian Nights opened on 26th November and runs until 14th December 2013 at the Blue Elephant Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Oval (Northern)

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