Operation Magic Carpet, Polka Theatre

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Stories matter. So often they form the very substance of human communication, allowing us to define who we are both for others and for ourselves. They are our window onto what has come before and what lies ahead. They are how we see the world, how we shape it, sometimes even how we change it. And they’re certainly not just for children.

In Operation Magic Carpet, inherited stories are not just told, but retold. Samantha Ellis’s play is about where we come from and where we are now; about roots, journeys and destinations. It’s a story about stories and it’s a story written for children, though the ideas it’s gently tussling with are far from childish.

It’s a story with a heroine: curious, imaginative, no-nonsense Nomi. The British child of Iraqi immigrants, what Nomi wants more than anything is a story of her own. She’s stranded in a second generation no man’s land, struggling to lay claim to the narratives of Iraq and reluctant to accept those of Britain. Her father urges her to embrace their new home – “you’re lucky to be born in this country with its moderate climate, moderate people and moderate politics” – while her mother and uncle yearn for the country they have left behind, their wistful remembrances shutting Nomi out. Where does she fit in?

Her answer comes via a genie in a bottle, a ride on a magic carpet, and a daring adventure through the streets of Baghdad. When an unlikely sidekick pops out of her parents’ mango pickle jar, Nomi is granted her wish of going to Iraq, but the country she finds is one more familiar from the Thousand and One Nights than from television news reports. Once there, she encounters shooting stars, a proverb-spewing caliph and Sinbad the, erm, Merchant (he doesn’t like it when he’s called Sailor). She goes in search of her mother’s lost heart but, as in all good old-fashioned adventure stories, things get a little complicated along the way.

Sadly, the magic of the story doesn’t always translate to Rosamunde Hutt’s well-behaved production. Mischief, rather than being unbottled, too often feels controlled. Some pleasingly boisterous post-interval audience interaction aside, the performance hovers just short of the playfulness really needed to captivate its target audience of six to eleven year olds. Even in a climactic fight sequence, the action lacks the verve to fully transport its young spectators, its audacious series of magical transformations somehow failing to enchant.

As a piece of theatre, though, its real value lies in its reframing of familiar narratives. Without being overtly political, Operation Magic Carpet is a challenge of sorts. Its strong female protagonist challenges the insidious gender stereotypes of so many stories for children, which quietly influence how both girls and boys see their place in the world. It challenges media narratives of Iraq, refusing to ignore the nation’s turbulent recent history but at the same time recovering its thrilling, magical past. And at a time when immigration is at the top of the political agenda, it celebrates the condition of belonging to two places at once, exposing the shallowness and lack of imagination of an insistence on “British values”.

Like I said, stories matter. And so does this one.