Alan Ayckbourn openly acknowledges the debt which his family Christmas show owes to George Lucas. The Champion Of Paribanou is equal parts Arabian Nights and Star Wars: Grand Viziers and flying carpets on the one hand, mysterious beings with glowing eyes and comically malfunctioning androids on the other. In fact, the robot character Salim more or less sweeps the Lucasian board: he looks like Darth Vader, but behaves somewhere between R2D2 and Chewbacca the wookie (and, for added bonus SF value, talks like a Dalek). Just about the only ingedient missing is that fights are conducted with good old-fashioned swords rather than light-sabres.
However, since the story of Star Wars is faithful to the same tropes as all great tales, it should come as no surprise that in two hours we cover the corrupting effect of power, the conflict between personal feelings and higher duties and the victory of the determined young underdog, as well as a little byplay involving gender roles and the importance of believing in oneself. Nor does Ayckbourn shy away (as if he would) from the more shadowy aspects of tales of yore. Not to give too much away, the story deals with the thwarted love of Ahmed (Jonathan McGuinness), the sultan's youngest son, and his childhood sweetheart Murganah (Pauline Turner), and with Ahmed's quest to rid the land in general and his household in particular of an ancient evil now reawakened.
Ayckbourn's direction at times shows a slightly awkward sense of the recent Disneyfication of adventure stories: now and again performances seem to owe more to animation than to theatre, as with Adrian McLoughlin's habitually bustling Grand Vizier or Kate Farrah's bland Paribanou, a character who has little function other than to provide a cause in which Ahmed can be enlisted. More than counterbalancing this, however, is a sprightly staging with fine smoke-laden special effects and a gleefully excessive use of the Stephen Joseph's system of stage trucks: in one scene change an ornamental shrub whizzes out of one door to be replaced from another by an almost identical plant zooming into exactly the same spot. The script also demonstrates a sharp acuity in inserting just enough gags tailored for the grown-ups, without letting youngsters feel that things are shooting over their heads.
At the matinée performance I attended, the large school parties grew noticeably restive only during a couple of lengthy speeches from the Sultan and the sinister Shaibar; Ahmed and Murganah's early kiss was greeted by only a single young "Yeuk!", and such chatter as there was consisted largely of engrossed second-guessing of what might be about to happen – all of which amounts to a seal of young approval, really. Moreover, with next spring seeing the re-release of new augmented cuts of all three Star Wars movies, it is not improbable that The Champion Of Paribanou will reappear some time thereafter to entertain a whole new generation as it realises that there is more to grand, sweeping stories than cartoon Indian princesses singing orchestral ballads.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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