Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

Great End of Year Offering

At the Sherman

Sherman Cymru- Arabian Nights , Sherman Cymru , December 11, 2014
At the Sherman by Sherman Cymru- Arabian Nights Sherman Cymru has a winter hit on its hands. That at least is the verdict of the audience on the performance after the first night. A ten-thirty-in-the-morning show to a packed house from three Cardiff schools is the real thing. If they whoop and cheer at the end of their two-hour journey across four of Schehezerade's one thousand and one stories that is because they mean it.

There is another give-away that director Rachel O'Riordan has a hit. That is the quiet that comes from attention. Dominic Cooke's adaptation is not a laugh-out-loud affair. A husband early on receives a lusty kick on the shins from a feisty wife. The kids like that. In the second act a story is impelled by a breaking of wind of historic dimensions and they like that too. But mainly the nine strong company- all on stage throughout apart from an occasional dash to fetch an instrument- are received in quiet. And quiet from an audience of this age means one thing. Theatre is holding their attention, utterly.

“Arabian Nights” gets it for several reasons. The first is pace. The stories necessitate narrative and explanation but it is all done with speed and mobility. Elin Phillips has a speech of moderate length but it is left for the end and has the narrative satisfaction of wrapping the story up. It has a moral “To be free, you must forgive”, although in truth to an adult eye it casts a forgiving veil over the actions of a monarch who might better be seen as a murderous despot.

The language is uncondescending. Kassim may try to escape by saying “Open semolina” or “Open, sardine” but the language asks of its audience that they listen. The music under musical director Gareth Wyn Griffiths- piano and violin in the lead along with accordion, oboe and cello- ascends to rhythmic jubilation. The story of Sindbad includes music of klezmeresque punch and drive. The blend of Wales and klezmer fits; there is a band in Powys who has pioneered it.

Thirdly,it is unembarrassed theatre that makes a world from its stage. It uses what it has and relies on the imagination of the audience to make the jump. When a newborn enters a story a shawl is deftly grabbed and wrapped up to become a child. Sindbad lands on what he takes to be a white dome, revealed to be the egg of a roc. The egg is the creation of a white parasol. When the longed-for object of a search in the last story makes her appearance Rachel O'Riordan creates an image of white beauty.

The design avoids elaboration of a fanciful Persia. The stage has some heaped sand and is lit in blue but the men are in plain waistcoats and Ali Baba wears a safety helmet of plastic yellow. The cave of the forty thieves and other story settings are all the work of the company in movement and action. The company includes Ashley Alymann, Pete Ashmore, Joanna Hickman, Elin Phillips, Anita Reynolds, Alun Saunders and Keiron Self.

Cardiff is not a big city. The success of the New Theatre's Christmas pantomime is built on traditional format, star names and a lure that pulls in audiences from as far as Milford Haven. The Sherman has it tougher and suffered in 2013 by the over-supply of winter offerings, losing to a heavily advertised competitor. In 2014 there is clear blue water between “Arabian Nights” and “Cinderella”, not least in its elements of darkness.

“Arabian Nights” is the ultimate testament, as Schehezerade says, to the power of story. The production is embodiment of its subject, a world of sorcerers and djinns, capricious tyrants and obeisant viziers, acts of cruel malice and jealousy between siblings. There is a moment of sheer deliciousness from Joanna Hickman as a wife who eats rice at home by the single grain and steals away at night. Her purpose, and the staging, are too good to reveal. Go see.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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