Play review – Arabian Nights sets Bristol Old Vic aglow

Arabian Nights production photos taken at Bristol Old Vic on 24th November 2023 in Bristol. Arabian Nights Company_Photo by Ellie Kurttz

Bristol Old Vic has a tradition of staging festive productions that transport us to other worlds, with colour-infused sets and costumes, modern twists on familiar tales and a dash of humour to keep the audience enthralled.

Writer Sonali Bhattacharyya and director Blanche McIntyre have delivered in full with Arabian Nights, treating audiences to an imaginative production packed with characters designed to win hearts and jolt emotions.

With contemporary references and ironies sprinkled in, including mention of TikTok and a mobile phone as a gift for a girl who would prefer a bag of lentils, the central messages are the power of stories and of working together.

When Schere heroically takes the place of a neighbour to become the King’s next wife, she breaks a pattern the peevish king has been wedded to since his wife left – marrying a woman and then casting her into the palace dungeon the very next morning. At this point, we are told, around 100 ex-wives languish in the dungeons. Schere is determined no more women will be sacrificed to the King’s broken heart, and intends to keep the King’s attention with stories, with each nightly tale ending on a cliff-hanger.

Yasemin Özdemir as Schere is a force to be reckoned with, fearless and determined to help the King learn to be a better person. Sara Diab as Dina portrays Schere’s younger sister, deftly demonstrating her blossoming from a person who’s always believed they’re less than their sibling, and discovering her own courage.

As the King, Nicholas Karimi brings to the stage a character who is both comical and terrifying – basically a toddler who might have you thrown in the dungeon if you fail to serve him the dinner he demands.

As the King’s whims empty the sea and rob his people of food, hope begins to flourish in the form of candles glowing in the windows of parents in gratitude for their daughters who have not been summoned to marry the King thanks to Schere.

Yet when Schere is asked to make one final sacrifice, it’s more than she can bear.

Arabian Nights production photos taken at Bristol Old Vic on 24th November 2023 in Bristol. Nicholas Karimi as the King and Yasemin Özdemir as Schere with Hannah Sibai’s palace windows lit by Nao Nagai. Photo by Ellie Kurttz

Nicholas Karimi as the King and Yasemin Özdemir as Schere with Hannah Sibai’s palace windows lit by Nao Nagai.

Hannah Sibai’s set is gloriously realised. Simple windows hanging in mid-air to represent the village, and an ornate trio of windows as the palace, with atmosphere painted with lighting from the talented Nao Nagai.

And, yes, Samuel Wilde’s puppets are magnificent – relying at times on the full eight-strong cast to work the horse in flight, an extraordinary serpent and the tentacles of a leviathan.

Arabian Nights production photos taken at Bristol Old Vic on 24th November 2023 in Bristol. Full company working the serpent.

Full company working Samuel Wilde’s serpent puppet.

Family sits at the heart of the tale, with Schere and Dina’s dad Maruf (Saikat Ahams) desperately trying to keep his daughters safe. We’re never told what happened to their mother, only that they miss her and set a place for her at meals. I thought she might appear in a moment of crisis, but in the end she is only a memory. The neighbours join in to help, however, and show that family can be more than biological.

One wonderful strand in the production is the discovery that the ex-wives are far from passively awaiting rescue, and are instead busily striving towards their own great escape.

It’s an apt reminder that while the stories we see ourselves represented in can empower us, we ultimately have the ability to write our own stories and be an active player in our own triumphant tales.

Arabian Nights is at Bristol Old Vic until 6th January 2024. Book ticket from £10 (plus concessions) here.


  • Saikat Ahams as Maruf
  • Ajjaz Awad as Gulab/Umm
  • Sara Diab as Dina
  • Roxy Faridany as Maryam
  • Nicholas Karimi as The King
  • Patrick Osborne as Jafar
  • Yasemin Özdemir as Schere
  • Arinder Sadhra as Rahiq/Zara

Everyone else

  • Writer Sonali Bhattacharyya
  • Director Blanche McIntyre
  • Designer Hannah Sibai
  • Lighting Designer Nao Nagai
  • Sound Designer & Composer Oğuz Kaplangı
  • Movement Director Aline David
  • Puppetry Designer and Consultant Samuel Wilde
  • Casting Director Christopher Worrall CDG
  • Associate Director Melina Namdar
  • Costume Supervisor Anna Dixon
  • Associate Puppetry Designer Hannah Southfield
  • Puppet Maker Izzy Bristow
  • Puppet Maker Bryony Harrison Pettit
  • Puppet Dresser Katy Hoste
  • Placement Maker Jessica Miller
  • Placement Maker Blue Harrison
  • Fight Director Annie Mackenzie

Have you watched, seen or read anything interesting? I’d love to know. I’m always happy to receive reviews of books, art, theatre and film. To submit or suggest a review, please send an email to judydarley (at)

Theatre review – An Oak Tree


Tim Crouch and Amy Griffiths in An Oak Tree_cr Greg Veit 3

Tim Crouch and Amy Griffiths in An Oak Tree © Greg Veit

It’s an interesting idea – a play with two performers: the playwright himself and an actor who has never seen the script or play before. Tim Crouch, the creator of An Oak Tree, weaves in a sense of precariousness by thrusting his co-star in at the deep end, playing the part not only of the story’s second protagonist, but also of a selection of participants in a hypnotism show taking place in a pub “about a year from now.”

Every word is scripted, but unrehearsed, with the actor reading from a clipboard or responding to instructions from Crouch.

Underneath all this is a bleak tale of loss – the death of a child, accidentally killed by Crouch’s hypnotist character. In our performance the girl’s father, Andy, was played with remarkable skill and empathy by Neve McIntosh. The premise is that Andy, three months into his bereavement, is consumed by the idea that his daughter is in everything – not gone at all – in the dips in surfaces, but most especially in an oak tree. He sees the poster for Crouch’s hypnotism show and volunteers, hoping for answers.

That in itself is a compelling concept, one I would have like to have seen explored more thoroughly. Often, Crouch’s instructions to Neve were a distraction – especially when he muttered the lines she then had to deliver.

But this technique did aptly mirror the experience of being in the audience of a third-rate hynotism act, right down to the uneasy impression of perhaps being taken for a fool. At times Crouch addressed Neve directly – as in a section where she, following a heartbreaking scene as Andy, begins to weep and Crouch seems to intervene with concern, but jolts the illusion by saying. “Are you okay? Say yes.”

Andy and Neve are clearly both characters, even if Neve has the luxury of stepping off stage and going home afterwards.

Very meta, and certainly immersive in the sense that we, the audience in the theatre, are playing our role as the audience in the pub. By encouraging us to applaud imaginary volunteers, Crouch ensures we feel like participants in the game – if not collaborators.

Suggestibility and collusion are strong themes, as Andy fumbles his way through the treacherous moonscape of grief, grasping at an shred of comfort he can find.

Neve, with her expressive face, was a joy to watch – somehow embodying six-foot-tall  Andy and utterly convincing at every turn. I had the sense that she had the best time of anyone through her commitment to Andy and his raw bewilderment, grief and love. In fact, following the performance Neve tweeted “One of the most extraordinary, meaningful & beautifully bonkers stage experiences I’ve ever had!” Understood.

Tim Crouch and Amy Griffiths in An Oak Tree_cr Greg Veit

Tim Crouch and Amy Griffiths in An Oak Tree © Greg Veit

There are moments when the grief shines through so vividly it’s almost unbearable, such as a scene in which Neve as Andy wakes his wife Dawn (Crouch sitting back to back with Neve, and with his back to us) to read her a meditation transcript, and she clearly reaches breaking point, screaming that his loss is less than hers because their daughter only existed in his head anyway – they all exist only in his head. It’s a breathtaking statement, and one flurried with possibilities. For a second I was convinced we were about to discover Andy in a padded cell, mourning a family that had never been real.

When An Oak Tree was first performed ten years ago it was groundbreaking. Today, while still clever, I found myself longing for a simpler, less tangled performance that focused more directly on a father, his pain and the tree he hoped might be his redemption. That, in itself, would be powerful enough.

An Oak Tree is at Bristol Old Vic until 19th September 2015.

To submit or suggest a review, please send an email to judydarley (at)

Play review – The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil

Oscar Adams in The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil cr ShotAway1An immense cast, a diverse array of techniques (from shadow puppetry to cunning lighting), and a huge amount of imagination – Bristol Old Vic Young Company have taken an award-winning graphic novel and given it life.

As we enter the Bristol Old Vic’s Studio to take our seats, we find the cast already in place, all 20 of them, standing and gazing out at us.

At its heart a political tale about a town’s reaction to one of its residents growing a truly massive beard, the play is shot through with humour and joy. Characters are larger than life, from level-headed Professor Darren Black, played by 23-year-old Elliot Winter, to vehement Nigel-Farage-alike acted by Joshua Robinson, to the quiet, unassuming Dave, who just wants to be left alone to draw and listen to Eternal Flame by The Bangles, but whose facial hair is causing all the furore. Oscar Adams portrays Dave’s personality beautifully, ensuring that even when weighed down by metres of beard he still shines through. Continue reading