Hoxton Hall, London – until 13 October 2018
The gorgeous interior of Hoxton Hall is a perfect setting for a show about the exotic East. Not nearly as well known as it should be, the hall is a Victorian music hall preserved in remarkable condition, with delicate iron columns and two balcony tiers.
Nessah Muthy selects highlights from One Thousand and One Nights, a popular inspiration for the Victorians who built this place. The tales chosen include Sinbad and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, so familiar we take them for granted yet, staged here, they are revealed savage and grotesque parables, full of dismemberment, bizarre cruelty, grim monsters and fart jokes.
The enfolding narrative – slave girl Sharazad tells tales to save her sister Dunzayad from enforced marriage to King Shahryar, to be followed by her execution – is the darkest of all. The production plays on the contemporary Incel resonance of a man, filled with hatred for women, who claims he kills on behalf of all men. It even argues that such a monster can be changed by love.
It is in the telling of the tales, though, that Arabian Nights really comes alive. Iris Theatre uses a spectacular array of puppets, from a towering, glowing-eyed King Shahryar to birds, ships and sea monsters. Some stories are played out at puppet-size, others by the actors wearing masks. The variety is enthralling, and the characterful puppet designs by Johnny Dixon are the star of the show.
However, the cast is also very enjoyable to watch. Sharon Singh and Izzy Jones as the calm and impetuous sisters, not only run the show, but are almost unrecognisable when they don masks for the tales. Hemi Yeroham scampers around like Mario the Plumber as Ali Baba, while Singh plays his wife like Olive Oyl. Muthy revels in the gore – severed limbs in a bag, shipmates roasted on a spit – while exploring the terrorising of women that drives the stories. The evening is full of invention, an excellent entertainment highly suitable for a venue that has been serving up amusements for 150 years.