Tuesday, 12 February 2013

1001 Nights - review

Written by: Natasha Shah (@Tash_Shah)

Unicorn Theatre, London

From Syria to London with whirlwind stops through Basra and Baghdad, 1001 Nights journeys across the world in 80 minutes. Well, 70 actually (almost). Transport Theatre Company’s latest offering is a devised piece borne out of the stories of Arabian Nights. Our story begins in Damascus, where we find the exceptionally well-read Shahrazad and her doting parents. In the retelling of one of her favorite stories, Shahrazad’s father breathes life into the tale of Abu Hassan and his enormous fart, wonderfully weaving words and laughter into their world. However, their joy is short lived as Shahrazad and her Father are forced to take flight from their home country and travel to London to seek safety from the ensuing war, leaving their passport-less Mother behind. Finding themselves in contemporary London, the piece simultaneously follows the family’s story whilst also telling the many tales within Shahrazad’s storybooks.

The cast of three carries this storytelling piece brilliantly and Danusia Samal is wonderfully convincing as the youthful and innocent natured Shahrazad. Ritu Arya really shines in the role of Shahrazad’s young urban neighbour with a particular highlight in her telling the story of Cinderella. Although the two young characters do not speak the same language, they communicate through the telling of their tales; Arya’s animated and energetic retelling of this classic Grimm fairytale is hugely comic and enough to rouse an applause from the audience mid performance. Thomas Padden is equally strong as Shahrazad’s father and his engaging, humorous performance in the opening story of Abu Hassan quickly establishes him as an excellent storyteller. His comic timing is fantastic and he commands the stage with such ease that one can’t help but long to see more of him in the piece.

James Perkins’ wonderful set design creates the grey, concrete backdrop of London in which the piece takes place. With the audience on three sides, the centre of the stage houses a raised platform on which the majority of the action takes place. Surrounded with refuse in the form of plastic sheets, bags and cardboard boxes, the characters use these props to re-imagine the far off worlds in their stories and at times, they do so beautifully. In one tale, as steam floods up through a grate in the stage, the characters create the demon of the story, who’s plastic lifeless body inflates above it and becomes a third character onstage. This imaginative moment of storytelling results in another impromptu round of applause and left me longing for more of this kind of creativity. However, the use of plastic sheets to create demons and dresses quickly becomes repetitive and dull; in some of Shahrazad’s particularly long-winded tales, one can’t help but notice children fidgeting in their seats.

Set against the backdrop of a contemporary war, the piece cleverly interweaves the stories from Arabian Nights and Western cultures, acknowledging that in our modern society, the Middle East is not the far off and distant land it is envisioned to be in some of these original tales. Shahrazad’s ability to survive through her stories takes on new meaning in this adaptation and brings the tales of Arabian Nights into a new era. 

This production runs until 17 March 2013. 

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