ARABIAN NIGHTS … AND DAYS
Shifting Sands Theatre at the Cramphorn Theatre, Chelmsford
The space is transformed with the simplest of hangings – russet and fawn cloths strung out to suggest a desert village, perhaps.
So something of a shock to see the scene set first in a care home, with uniformed staff dealing brusquely with an infantilized old man.
But he insists on telling his story, keeping the inevitable at bay, even if no-one is listening. And what might be this same old man, well over two hours later, passes through the forbidden door. He reminds us that every story is in fact three stories: the one we hear, the one that is spoken, and the one that we take away. Before a jolly farewell jig, and a plea to fill out the little feedback forms - “We're Arts Council funded!”
The stories we take away from this unique theatrical event are a mixture of the intriguing and the familiar, ingeniously nested tales in a tapestry of Sultans, fools, kings, princesses, a fisherwoman, a tailor and a dead parrot.
Among the most memorable, an inspired leprosy sequence, Sinbad in Eastbourne, and the story of the husband who killed his parrot, the only witness to his wife's adultery. The audience much involved in the goings-on here, and in several other collaborative moments. The last story, with the sheets and the flashlight used to excellent effect – the boat morphs into a receding wave on the shore – is one of the best.
This is not traditional story-telling. The two care workers – Merce Ribot and Patricia Rodriguez – play many parts, colourfully costumed, usually with an Arabic accent, though the chorus of Henry V and Ireland also get a look-in. The Old Man – sultan, parrot, et al – is Gerry Flanagan. The troupe's designer and technician, Louise Manifold, appears occasionally from the desk at the back – bringing a duck and bath bubbles, and a lovely song just before the interval.
The style is improvisatory and very physical. No script, one imagines, but a framework around which to act out the tales, switching from comedy to tragedy in a moment.
Sometimes it feels laboured – desperately repeating “find the other apple” does little to add to the suspense – and taking over the story with “What happened ...” can wear thin.
It would dilute Shifting Sands' trademark style if the presentation became too slick. But one man's spontaneity is another man's sloppy self-indulgence, and maybe a less incestuous eye – Flanagan, an excellent clown, with killing asides, has directed, and performed in, every one of their shows since he formed the company back in 1998 – could tighten things a little without losing any of the rough-hewn charm.