The Thief of Baghdad, Linbury Studio Theatre: Royal Opera House, London
Monday 29 December 2008
Will Tuckett's latest family show is an Arabian Nights fantasy that makes a point of storytelling. We don't start with sultans and princesses, but with wartime children creeping into a bombed theatre, where a stage door keeper helps them to act out the stories. It's a mix of invention and insistent theatricality. Tuckett's characters lose momentum by going on about the magic of theatre, but along the way, they find a flying horse and a satisfying magic carpet.
In his works for families, Tuckett mixes speech, movement and inventive stage design. He's a strong producer, good at transformations and unexpected images. But his choreography is limited: he's better at using movement to create atmosphere than at standout numbers.
John Bausor's designs take the shell of the Linbury stage, then turn it into a wrecked theatre. There's a shelled hole at the back, with crumbling brickwork that later becomes the entrance to a magic cave. The war is unspecified, but the sisters Megan and Bee, and their friend Callum, have all lost their families. They meet Christopher Colquhoun's stage door keeper, who starts telling the story. The girls, who are keen to join in, dress up as the princess and her pet monkey. Callum is reluctant, interrupting the tale to complain or sulk, and has to be persuaded back into the narrative. This prompts questions about stories: can these children imagine happy endings?
In the tale and the framing narrative, there's a lot about listening to your heart and being true to your inner prince; an earnest, self-conscious strand in Sarah Woods's script. There's also some unexpected toughness. The children complain they're lost and that the story has tired them without helping.
Meanwhile, Tuckett's staging comes up with some vivid images. The Sultan is given a toy soldier, a modern fighter in camouflage, with tin hat and plastic face. There's a turning key in his back. The dancer crawls like a wind-up toy, twitchy and unpredictable, his face creepily blank.
The winged horse is another soldier. Laura Caldow pulls off her backpack, lifting it up to make a horse head. Caldow's movement, snorts and twitches make the creature believably horsey. Matthew Hart plays the villainous pantomime demon, making unexpected entrances from pianos, vases or holes in the ground. He's sinuous and entertainingly hammy, from his pointy shoes to his Ming the Merciless beard.
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