Emma Geliot's picture

Arabian Nights at The Sherman Cymru. Photograph by Mark Douet  Arabian Nights at The Sherman Cymru. Photograph by Mark Douet

Listen. In a silver-clad palais of pleasure, in exotic Cathays, the elder daughter of a vizier spins fantastical stories to save her life.Jump on a magic carpet with Emma Geliot and her critical companion, Megan Morgan, for a night of utterly enchanting and inventive entertainment. Arabian Nights at Sherman Cymru is a real gem amongst the festive tinsel and tat.

This is the story of Shahrazad (who you might know better as Scheherazade) and the 1001 Arabian Nights, a clever girl with a limitless imagination. In it a king, embittered by the discovery that his wife has been unfaithful, has her beheaded and then decides to wreak his revenge on a whole gender. He marries a virgin each night then beheads them at dawn. Warning the body count is higher than a Tarantino gore-fest: beheadings (1001), quarterings (several) and a stabbing.

Shahrazad, who has been entertaining her younger sibling, Dinarzad, with stories, has a cunning plan to distract the king and save the sisterhood. She has to wait three years until she s old enough to marry him and to persuade her father that it s a good idea. By this time a thousand girls have lost their heads. Come on, you know, or half-know the story. You probably also know a lot of the tales from Arabian Nights Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, Sinbad but the Sherman production side-steps the most familiar Aladdin, The Thief of Baghdad introducing us instead to some less familiar (but no less enchanting) stories.

This is proper theatre. Proper story-telling. At this time of year audiences don t want the shock of the new for its own sake, they want a cracking yarn and a sprinkling of magic and we had that in spades. I especially liked the way that room was allowed for the suspense of disbelief and the elements of make-believe that children use in play. I was happy to believe that three coloured scarves were babies born and cast into a river; a folded coat was a dismembered corpse and yards of outstretched fabric and two torches were a giant mythical bird.

One yarn, which had the audience of all ages snorting, featured destiny governed by flatulence (fart jokes are big and clever). There was a sprinkling of more moral tales (jealous sisters get their comeuppance) and some frankly weird stories too - a flesh-eating bride gets turned into a horse and whipped by her husband, when he finds out she s been feasting on fresh corpses with a ghoul. There were also the ghosts of stories since appropriated by other authors. Two brothers and their little sister (the grown up versions of those scarves tossed into the river) want to find a talking bird. The boys go first, facing perils and, despite the best efforts of the guiding dervish, end up turned to stone by the threatening voices at their heels. Only the girl has the wit to stuff her ears with cotton wool, find the bird and rescue her brothers a whiff of The Wild Swans perhaps.

The set is exactly as we ve come to expect from the Sherman clever, multi-purpose with some nice touches and effects. We re in a desert and a bedroom and a palace and a cave; caught in a diamond-studded valley, up a ladder for a mountain, or in the nest of a roc (or was it rook?), a forest or a treasure-filled cave. Sand dunes swirl around the set, framed by hundreds of twinkling lights. More lights are raised or lowered, swaying when we re at sea. The moon descends to be used for shadow play. Only a few props, like the ladders, are moved into the action, everything else is conveyed by an ensemble cast that, once it gets into its stride - there a few early minutes when it seems to take a while to warm up - swirls and twirls and, most importantly, seem to be really enjoying themselves.

Arabian Nights at The Sherman Cymru. Photograph by Mark Douet Arabian Nights at The Sherman Cymru. Photograph by Mark Douet

The costumes are pleasingly swooshy, the jewel coloursof a well-worn Persian carpet, with not a brash dash of lurex or a flash of sequin in sight. Characters change with the addition of a coat, a length of fabric or a pair of wings. The eight-strong cast also dance and, just to give them something extra to do with their hands, provide the music: Cello, flute, violin, clarinet, accordion and various bits of percussion for sound effects. Only the piano is static the spine of the music.

Arabian Nights at The Sherman Cymru. Photograph by Mark Douet

If I was being boring I d raise an eyebrow at some of the mixed messages. Are women inventive, clever, virtuous and wise? Or are they evil, shrewish, jealous? Who, quite frankly, cares here? There are enough positive messages to reassure the most gender-stereotype-conscious, middle-class parents and, in comparison to your standard festive panto, the usual double entendres and general smuttiness are absent odd really, as some of the original tales are fruity to say the least.

What also struck me were the references to places that have gathered such negative connotations of late Basra isn t pre-fixed aswar-torn for starters. I m not sure how much this might have sunk in to the young (although, on this night, overwhelmingly adult) audience. But anything that challenges pre-conceptions, fuelled by a barrage of bad news, has to be good.

I ve mentioned a slow start, a bit on the clunky side, but then we were being whipped into the meat of the story at racing camel speed, and there were a few stumbles, but that s a bit nit-picky. Once up and running, the narration, the deft evocation of a new scene, the head-spinning speed of the character morphs and the musical interlinking kept everything flowing beautifully.

Anyway, who cares what I think? This is a family show so what s it like for a child? My co-reviewer has extremely refined critical faculties (honed by watching Srtictly Come Dancing and forensicallypulling apart technique) so here s what Megan (10) thought of it all:

Good humour, clever switching between narrating and acting, between third person and first person. The lighting was great, the stories flowed thick and fast and everyone played their part. You could always understand which characters the actors were playing because they always said the character names at least twice. I knew some of the stories from a school play I d seen, but there were lots of exciting new ones. I think boys from about seven upwards and girls from about eight upwards would enjoy it and grown ups of any age. I might also add that, when asked what she's thought as we came out of the theatre, she said, "Brilliant, I thought it was just brilliant!"

You ll have to take my word for it, this is praise indeed. If you re feeling jaded by the festive retail frenzy or the post-Christmas ennui, step into another world at the Sherman. You won t regret it.

Arabian Nights is at Sherman Cymru, Cathays, Cardiff until 31 December Follow this link for information and to watch a trailer.

Directed by Rachel O Riordan, Adapted by Dominic Cook, Designed by Hayley Grindle. Cast: Ashley Alymann; Pete Ashmore; Joanna Hickman; Elin Phillips; Anita Reynolds; Alun Saunders; Keiron Self; Finbar Varall