Review: Arabian Nights at Hoxton Hall

When it comes to storytelling, they don’t come much more epic than Arabian Nights – not only a story about stories, but stories with the power to save lives. And in the capable hands of Iris Theatre, this classic tale makes for a fun, family-friendly (for the most part) show that looks fantastic and, as with the company’s previous production The Three Musketeers, places a strong female role model at centre stage. Also – puppets. Many, many puppets.

Photo credit: Ali Wright

Although Nessah Muthy’s adaptation changes a few details, the basic plot of Arabian Nights is one that will be familiar to most. The tyrannical King Shahryar (Pravessh Rana) once had his heart broken, so now he marries a new woman every day, only to have her executed the next morning. As you do. When his eye falls on slave girl Dunzayad (Izzy Jones), her older sister Sharazad (Sharon Singh) begs to take her place, before enchanting the king so completely with stories that he can’t bring himself to kill her the next day – or the day after that…

As always seems to be the case with Iris Theatre, the show’s impressive cast – which also includes Hemi Yeroham, Ikky Elyas and Maya Britto, making her professional debut – seems impossibly small given the scale of the production. This is even more true in Arabian Nights, where the roles listed for each actor in the programme are far from exhaustive; it’s something of a shock to see only six people step up for the curtain call, and even more surprising that they’re all still standing.

Together this seamless ensemble bring vividly to life not only Sharazad’s own story but also those she tells the king, transporting the audience to far-off lands and introducing us to a multitude of colourful characters through music, dance and puppetry. The latter comes in a number of forms: puppet designer Jonny Dixon has created towering monsters, hand-held figures, and an array of face masks that render the actors temporarily unrecognisable. All come together to create a captivating world of magic and mystery; King Shahryar isn’t the only one who’s charmed.

Sharon Singh easily commands our attention as Sharazad, a timeless heroine who in this version of the story is not only fighting for her own life but also that of her sister. She may have a much cooler head in a crisis than Izzy Jones’ impulsive Dunzayad – but we still see flashes of fire as Sharazad defiantly stands, armed only with her wits, against the king’s crazed misogyny and violent temper. In this role, Pravessh Rana is frighteningly convincing, and while the show is certainly great entertainment for all ages, there are a few moments that younger children may find a bit scary.

Following two outdoor promenade shows at St Paul’s Church this summer, director Daniel Winder continues to involve the audience, this time by having the cast share light-hearted interactions with those sitting closest to the stage. The show also explores every inch of its venue, which has been transformed for the occasion into an Arabian palace by set designer Amber Scarlett – the only downside being that from certain seats it’s difficult or even impossible to see everything that goes on.

Photo credit: Ali Wright

Though it certainly speaks to a modern audience in its calling-out of misogyny, Arabian Nights proves above all that no matter how old we get, there’s nothing we love better than a great story well told. Highly recommended for an evening of high-quality escapism and entertainment, presented by a talented and incredibly hard-working cast – with a little help from some seriously cool puppets.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

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