Arabian Nights is the third Christmas show on which Karen Louise Hebden and Stephen Edwards - Derby Playhouse's joint artistic directors since 2002 - have collaborated. Hebden's lively adaptation of these stories of life, love and law drawn from Arab, Persian and Indian cultures spins through a thousand and one nights, packing a lot in. Edwards, as director, has produced a highly imaginative and colourful interpretation which benefits from its cartoonish style.
Shahrazad's flights of fancy are brilliantly acted out with jokey buffoonery, magical transformations and nimble stage business. Designer Toni Jane Bysouth has devised a central revolving staircase offset in cool turquoise, with a semi-circular background of projected minarets and steeples establishing its Arabian credentials. Kelvin Towse's music plays a vital role in creating atmosphere, even if the few songs feel superfluous. The sounds of the versatile little band are woven through, with Chinese ehru offering oriental authenticity and sultry saxophone adding heat.
The superb eight-strong cast takes on more than 40 roles - although not Ali Baba's 40 thieves, who are reduced to four scallywags. If the tales of the first half are rather mundane, they're played out with no less conviction than the more exotic yarns of the second half. By the interval Shahrazad (Kirsty Yates) has run out of time with the Sultan (Glenn Carter) and her head is literally on the block. It quite puts you off your ice-cream. But, saved from this knife-edge situation, the wily young woman lives to tell more alluring tales to keep her head and win her Sultan. The adventures of Aladdin (Simon Thomas) are captivatingly accompanied by a gigantic floating genie from his lamp and the wispy projected face of a fairy genie from his ring.
Derby Playhouse desperately needs a genie. It is currently marooned in the middle of massive building works which, along with the apparent indifference shown by Derby City Council, pose a serious threat to its survival. The council may be waiting 1001 nights to realise what a valuable asset the Playhouse isbut, as the 30-year-old theatre itself is pointing out in a public campaign, drastic action is needed now if there's to be a happy ending to its story. And on the strength of this production alone, the Playhouse clearly deserves a stay of execution.
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