The Arabian Nights @ Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

There’s no better time than the festive season for a magical adventure and this year’s Lyceum Christmas production brings us just that

Review by Tamarin Fountain | 03 Jan 2018

In an era of advanced technology and fast media, the world premiere of Joe Douglas' The Arabian Nights showcases the kind of artistic skill that just can’t be contained in a microchip. Not the stuff of grandiose sets and hi-tech special effects that have become the norm in other Christmas productions, it takes us back to basics: classic stories, singing, live music, clever stagecraft and puppeteering. Presenting something original in a city full of well-known musicals, pantos, ballets and other Christmas shows is refreshing and a little risky, but while it may be new in terms of the script and score, the tales it contains are fondly familiar, including Sinbad and Ali Baba, constructed in a mystical world of magic carpets, genies and sultans.

The atmospheric wonder of an exotic ancient Baghdad is encapsulated through minimalistic but effective design, evocative music and rich descriptions which stir the imagination. Indeed, this is all about imagination: the story itself centring on stories – and stories within stories, within stories, within stories, within stories – in this Russian doll-style telling of tales. As neither the main characters nor the ditties are familiar to us, recognising the protagonists and story arches in these yarns adds a sense of connection and (mythical) history. Sometimes there’s a lot going on during their telling: a visually stunning scene features Sinbad among the billowing of silken sheets, creating a sense of seafaring turbulence from which a bejewelled genie appears. At other times stories are brought alive purely by a lone cast member speaking, a reminder of just how powerful and engrossing the medium can be.

Rehanna MacDonald carries the main role of Scheherazade with gusto, warmth and a top-notch singing voice. There’s some excellent comic performances too (notably from Taryam Boyd) with humour appealing to adults and kids alike – although there are times when the performances leave a little to be desired, with a few of the cameo characters needing to be fleshed out in terms of characterisation and believability.

Writer Suhayla El-Bushra, along with the cast and production team, ably transport the audience to a land far away (both in terms of time and geography) in this charming and thought-provoking show. Providing entertainment suitable for all the family that sits somewhere between high and low brow isn’t an easy task, but The Arabian Nights achieves just that, in suitably magical style.

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, until 6 Jan