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.

Arabian Nights is at Hoxton Hall until 13th October.


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Review: The Three Musketeers at St Paul’s Church

For swashbuckling family fun this summer, look no further than Iris Theatre’s The Three Musketeers. Set at the beautiful St Paul’s Church in Covent Garden, the largely open-air production takes Alexandre Dumas’ 1844 novel and condenses it into a thrilling adventure that sees Athos, Porthos, Aramis and new recruit d’Artagnan battle the mysterious and cunning Milady de Winter.

Even if – like me – you haven’t read the novel, there have been enough TV and film adaptations over the years of the Three Musketeers story that most people will probably have some idea what it’s all about (“all for one, and one for all” etc). What makes Daniel Winder’s adaptation particularly unique and refreshing, however, is that both its hero and its villain are women.

Photo credit: Nick Rutter

Faced with a future of limited opportunities following the death of her father, the young d’Artagnan (Jenny Horsthuis) has realised the only way she can hope to achieve her dream and gain a position with the Musketeers is to disguise herself as a man. Meanwhile Milady (Ailsa Joy), having suffered years of brutality at the hands of men, has decided to give them a taste of their own medicine; though she’s every inch the baddie, when we learn her story we can’t help but feel some sympathy for her motives. As Milady eventually observes, she and d’Artagnan are more alike than they realise – they’ve just chosen to tackle their situation in very different ways.

Despite having two strong female leads, it’s very telling that it’s still the male characters who make it into the show’s title, despite being rather less heroic than we might expect. The three Musketeers – Aramis (Albert de Jongh), Porthos (Elliot Liburd) and Athos (Matt Stubbs) – are certainly brave, but as individuals, and particularly in their attitude towards women, they leave quite a bit to be desired. (In a funny but significant sequence at the start of Act 2, d’Artagnan – having single-handedly saved Bethan Rose Young’s Queen of France from a plot hatched by Milady and Cardinal Richelieu – is then forced to extricate her colleagues, at great personal cost, from a variety of scandals in a series of country pubs.)

While it does give us plenty to think about, Paul-Ryan Carberry’s promenade production is also a lot of fun, with an immersive atmosphere and plenty of opportunities for audience members of all ages to get involved in the action as we make our way around the gardens and into the church itself. A hard-working cast play multiple roles, with special credit going to Stephan Boyce, who has to change costume and personality every five minutes as he plays four very different characters during the course of the show. The sword fights, choreographed by Roger Bartlett, are also particularly impressive – even more so given that cast member Albert de Jongh’s “wounded warrior” Aramis broke his ankle three days before the show opened.

A rip-roaring adventure full of humour, intrigue and drama, The Three Musketeers offers a fresh perspective on a well-known classic that can be enjoyed by the whole family – and in particular by young girls who want to see female characters do more than fall in love and get rescued. And with tickets starting from just £14, and special family offers available, it’s one of the best value theatrical experiences you’ll find in central London this summer.

The Three Musketeers is at St Paul’s Church until 2nd September.

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Review: The Tempest at St Paul’s Church

Amidst the chaos and bustle of London’s Covent Garden, St Paul’s Church feels like a little oasis of calm and tranquility. Affectionately known as The Actors’ Church, St Paul’s has been home to Iris Theatre since 2007, and the company’s tenth summer season gets off to a strong start with their promenade production of The Tempest.

Believed to be Shakespeare’s last solo play, The Tempest is a story about love, magic and redemption on a deserted island, where exiled duke Prospero and his faithful spirit Ariel plot revenge on his enemies after they’re washed ashore in a shipwreck. Meanwhile, Prospero’s slave Caliban has run off with some drunkards, and his daughter Miranda’s fallen in love with the third man she’s ever seen in her life – who conveniently happens to be the king’s lost son Ferdinand.

Photo credit: Nick Rutter

The first thing to say about Daniel Winder’s production is that it’s visually gorgeous. Mike Leopold’s nature-inspired set looks perfectly at home within the beautiful garden setting, Anna Sances’ costumes are full of rich, vibrant colour, and as the daylight fades, Benjamin Polya’s lighting design brings the play to an atmospheric conclusion. Throw in a clever sleight of hand magic scene, a singing spirit and a handsome prince, and you’ve pretty much got a fairy tale come to life.

Jamie Newall leads the cast of seven as a quietly authoritative Prospero; it’s a sympathetic interpretation of the character, whose actions seem motivated more by a sad weariness than by rage or tyranny. Linford Johnson and Joanne Thomson make a sweet and charmingly awkward couple as Ferdinand and Miranda, and Paul Brendan and Reginald Edwards offer great entertainment as the drunkards Trinculo and Stephano, who tempt Prince Plockey’s Caliban with booze and inadvertently find themselves talked into an ill-fated attempt to murder Prospero. The star of the show, however, is Charlotte Christensen as Ariel – a quirky, omnipresent figure, watching both characters and audience with a bird-like curiosity that’s both endearing and ever so slightly sinister.

Photo credit: Nick Rutter

The promenade aspect of the production, which takes us to three different locations within the gardens and briefly inside the church, works as well as can be expected. Waiting for the entire audience to move from one location to another (particularly when the paths are narrow and require us to travel single file) inevitably breaks up the action, but the actors work hard to keep the atmosphere alive in between scenes, and we’re always encouraged to feel like we’re part of the action. While I wouldn’t quite describe it as an immersive production, this also isn’t a show you just sit back and watch – so be prepared to potentially get a little bit involved…

I’d recommend The Tempest to anyone looking for a traditional Shakespearean production with a bit of a twist. While it may not bring us any radical new interpretations of the text, it does make for a thoroughly enjoyable evening, taking full advantage of a lovely setting to offer a welcome retreat from the madness of the city.

The Tempest is at St Paul’s Church until 28th July.

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