Tales from the Arabian Nights review: Ancient stories in a magical setting ★★★★

Bubble Theatre's atmospheric promenade show uses Greenwich Park as its stage

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Open-air theatre is always a gamble in Britain but that’s part of the joy of it. On Wednesday, a mini-monsoon engulfed London and this production had to be cancelled. Yesterday it felt like the gods were smiling down us: Greenwich Park was bathed in sunshine and at its most handsome.

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Tales from the Arabian Nights marks a welcome return for South London company Bubble Theatre, who used to do regular promenade productions until they were a casualty of arts cuts. The audience assembles at the bandstand, are issued with chairs, stools or blankets, and follow the troupe around the park.

Canary Wharf’s skyscrapers provided a fabulously incongruous backdrop as the sun set. When darkness fell, there was something very thrilling about being locked in Greenwich Park, watching ancient tales unfold while trees whispered in the shadows.

With just the grass as their stage, simple costumes and minimal props, the seven-strong cast do a wonderful job of bringing the stories of Arabian Nights to life, exuberantly hopping in and out of roles. There’s a little dancing and singing, and plenty of visual gags to entertain younger members of the audience. All the cast were superb, but I particularly enjoyed Rose-Marie Christian and Simon Startin’s facial expressions and Russeni Fisher’s grumpy fisherman. 

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London Bubble Theatre Company (photos by Jonathon Vines)

There are 1001 tales in Arabian Nights and writer Farhana Sheikh has pulled out a handful and woven them around a central story: a king is distraught to discover he’s being cheated on by his wife and embarks on a voyage to his brother’s royal household. In other tales we meet a princess who marries a goat, a fisherman who catches a monkey in his net and a servant who is castrated after lying to his master.

As Sheikh points out in the programme, the collection of stories in Arabian Nights originated in Asia and Africa as well as the Middle East, and were passed down through the centuries and transported between continents. Bubble Theatre foregrounds that multiculturalism and has fun with it – in the tale about the fisherman, he’s Jamaican and the monkey turns out to be Scottish. 

I’m not sure the tales of Arabian Nights are entirely suitable for a family audience, though. Parents may have to answer some tricky questions afterwards: “What’s hashish, mummy?” “Dad, what’s infidelity?” “What’s a concubine? And a bastard?” This is a warm, funny production but these stories are from a brutally patriarchal time. Men are powerful and merciless; women are adulterers, slaves or, at best, virgin princesses waiting to be married off.

It’s also very long for a family show. It was almost 10.30pm by the time one of the stewards unlocked the park gates and we had to leave this magical world and return to the safe, dull streets of Greenwich.

Tales from Arabian Nights is at Greenwich Park until 19 August. See londonbubble.org.uk


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