Efficient tale of swords and magic

Timothy Barber
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Cert: 12A

BASED on a computer game, Prince of Persia: Sands of Time sees doe-eyed actor Jake Gyllenhaal switch to swashbuckling action star, not entirely successfully. He’s got the beefy physique, and thanks to CGI there’s no end to the acrobatic leaps and somersaults he can perform while battling marauding hoards – it seems ancient Persia was the birthplace of parkour – but there’s not much spark about him. His strange, lank haircut doesn’t help – he looks more like the barman in a grungey rock bar than a dashing Middle Eastern sword-slinger.

Prince of Persia looks like an attempt to create another swords-’n’-magic action franchise in the mould of Pirates of the Caribbean, but it’s rather as though Orlando Bloom’s vapid character was the lead in the Pirates films, rather than Johnny Depp’s buccaneer rock star Jack Sparrow. The action is all efficient enough in a formulaic, seen-it-all-before way, but there’s not much to win over the heart.

Gyllenhall plays Dastan, a former street urchin adopted as a boy by the compassionate fictional king of ancient Persia, Sharaman (Ronald Pickup). After the Persian army attacks a foreign city it suspects is preparing for war – there’s a hint of WMD topicality, as it happens – Sharaman gets assassinated, and Dastan is held responsible. Teaming up with Princess Tamina (Gemma Arterton in her third big role of the summer) from the conquered city, he goes on the run, determined to prevent a mystical dagger that can turn back time from falling into the hands of his villainous uncle Nizam. If that happens, a sandstorm will be unleashed that will destroy the world.

Since you never have to wait long for a good old dust up, the film keeps ticking along pretty well. There’s nothing surprising or memorable about it, but it certainly does the whole swords, sands and spells thing with more aplomb and pace than last month’s Clash of the Titans, which also starred Arterton. Whether it can gather enough momentum for multiple sequels is a different matter altogether.

Preview – musical

WHEN it opens next week, one of the most anticipated new musicals on either side of the Atlantic won’t be found on Broadway or in the West End. Instead Paradise Found, directed by Hal Prince, the force behind shows including The Phantom of the Opera, Evita, Sweeney Todd, and Cabaret, and choreographed by fellow Broadway legend Susan Stroman, will raise its curtain in a 140-seater former factory in Southwark. And it’s the venue as much as the pedigree of the show’s creative team that’s generating the buzz.

Lying a couple of minutes’ walk up Southwark Street from London Bridge station, the Menier Chocolate Factory has become the go to place for quality musical theatre – of the kind that doesn’t involve pop back catalogues and Ben Elton lyrics – in just six years. Actually musicals are just one part of the story. Plays (old and new, established writers and upcoming), comedy performances, an art gallery and a charmingly atmospheric restaurant all contribute to the Menier’s creative hubbub, but it’s the musicals which have carved the venue an international reputation, with several West End and Broadway transfers for its shows. Earlier this month its most recent successes across the pond – La Cage Aux Folles (which starred Graham Norton in its West End run) and A Little Night Music – picked up 15 Tony Award nominations between them.

The reasons mooted for the Menier’s success range from the creative freedom is has as an unsubsidised space to the long gestation periods it enables its shows – they’ll have run for at the Menier and on the West End for several months before crossing the Atlantic. Artistic director David Babani, however, puts it down to three key ingredients.

“The building itself has so much wonderful charm and beauty that it does much of the work for us,” he says. “We have an incredibly committed team, from the stage managers down to the cleaners, and we have punters who want to be challenged and entertained.”

Paradise Found is set in Vienna in the days of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and tells the story – adapted from a Joseph Roth book – of a visit to the city by Shah of Iran, whereupon he falls for the empress. It’s an old-fashioned comic, romantic premise, and with music adapted from Viennese composer Johann Strauss II we can presumably expect the waltzes aplenty. Meanwhile, in July, the Menier will stage its first Lloyd Webber show, with a revival of the composer’s 1989 musical Aspects of Love, directed by Sir Trevor Nunn. It’s hard to think of anything less fashionable than a barely-missed Lloyd Webber show – though the peculiar 60s musical Sweet Charity must run it close. The Menier’s spiffing revival of that is now tearing up the West End, which suggests there’s little that can’t be turned into theatrical gold here. Why would Broadway legends go anywhere else?

Paradise Found is previewing now, and opens on Wednesday, running until 26 June.