Aladdin at West Yorkshire Playhouse

ANY designer charged with creating an eye-catching festive production in the Courtyard Theatre faces something of a challenge.

Over in the Playhouse's Quarry Theatre the big show, which this year is A Christmas Carol, invariably gets a bigger space, a bigger cast and a bigger budget to play with.

But the whole point of the alternative Christmas offering is that it is a distinctive departure from the mainstream.

And although they have a few more restrictions, the fact that their productions are aimed at a slightly younger audience (aged four and above) means they actually gain a little more room for manouevre.

Director Gail McIntyre and writer Mike Kenny have worked within this dynamic for years, and with this year's children's story, Aladdin, they've applied the same formula.

But it's Barney George who's responsible for manifesting all the ideas in a unique stage set.

"I think most people by now know what to expect from a Mike Kenny/Gail McIntyre production," says Barney. "They know it's going to be something a little bit different, at least in the telling of the story, if not the core of the story itself.

"To be fair, I haven't been asked to do this on a shoestring or anything, you know, I think what we've managed to produce looks pretty good.

"But I also think that what comes out of having to think differently about how you create something is often a production that's all the better for it."

One of the key starting points for this version of Aladdin was the idea of a market place, something which would have very much been a focal point in the original tale.

But, interestingly, although the story is thought to be predominantly Middle-Eastern the creators of this production found they had a little more artistic licence than they first thought.

"Mike looked into the story a lot and from his research found that there might actually have been more European than Middle-Eastern influences.

"So we thought it would be good to take that further and set it in an environment that everyone would recognise – just your normal local market."

The original tale of Aladdin was set in the Far East but convention now dictates that it is actually set in the Middle East.

However the history of how the story came to prominence is intriguing since there are few sources to suggest it has Arabic origins.

It was actually included in the book One Thousand and One Nights in 1710, by the person who translated the stories for a European audience, Frenchman Antoine Galland.

With a shift to the West in mind, McIntyre, Kenny and Barney, took it a stage further and used for inspiration Kirkgate Market, which is just a few yards away from the front door of West Yorkshire Playhouse.

Barney spent a good deal of time surveying the surroundings of a place where he frequently went shopping but hadn't quite viewed in detail.

The stage set isn't intended to be a reproduction of the Kirkgate landmark, but Leeds's markets certainly gave him more than a few ideas.

Barney said: "The main section at the front, the part which most people think of as the oldest part, probably gave the greatest inspiration of all.

"I loved all the colours and the materials and particularly the little ornamental cast iron dragons which you'll find dotted around the main market hall.

"We also noticed there was a huge balcony with railings that went all the way round the hall and over some of the entrances and from that we thought we would just create a bridge in the middle of the set, which was based on that same split-level idea."

The resulting set-up is one which works perfectly with the reconfigured layout of the Courtyard Theatre. As frequently happens with Christmas productions, the seating has been shifted so that it flanks, on two opposing sides, one central stage.

Which heightens the delivery of a show which, in line with the McIntyre/Kenny mantra, involves a lot of singing, dancing and a blurring of the lines between audience and performers.

"And there's plenty of bling too," laughs Barney. "So if anyone's wondering whether it's Christmassy enough they needn't worry."

Until Jan 15, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Quarry Hill, Leeds, 8.50 to 15, 6pm, mats 10.15am, 1.30pm. Tel: 0113 2137700. www.wyp.org.uk

MeetCute, part of Slung Low Shorts. Picture by Jim Mumby (JAM Photography).

Review: Slung Low Shorts, Leeds