If it be true that they is no subject unfit for a stage treatment, it must follow that any story can be a pantomime, not just the traditional ones. King Tut : A Pyramid Panto certainly strikes out into new Panto territory but succeeds best as a kind of loopy Carry On gang epic – Carry On Up, Back and Forth, The Nile. Jokes that make you groan, entendres that buckle under the weight of their doubling, flashy costumes, silly songs and dancers, a smattering of cross-dressing, some audience participation and a Camel. With a loverly hump. Leave the kids at home, drink some wine, and enjoy the supreme idiocy.
Pantomimes generally comform to particular traditions: a Dame for comic exuberance; a Principal Boy (a hero, played by a thigh slapping woman); a comic likely lad (often called Buttons); sing-alongs with the audience; catch-crys and callouts; often a hunt for lost treasure and magic of some kind. There may not be a Dame (even though there is an Egyptian temptress of sorts in Act 2) but the rest of the usual ingredients can be found in John Savournin’s wry and whimsical King Tut : A Pyramid Panto now playing at the King’s Head Theatre.
The best thing about the entire enterprise is Savournin’s script – with a surname like that, one supposes, savouring is sewn into his psyche. His evident joy at wordplay, his thirst for an obvious rhyme or a tragic quip, together with his fearless use of absurdity, ensure an audience is always attentive, looking for the next trick or treat.
The familiar Star Trek theme starts proceedings, quite a masterstroke. You know at once this is going to involve the unexpected and yet the familiar. The narrative weaves elements of Howard Carter’s famous expedition to uncover Tutankhamen’s tomb with some ideas from Doctor Who‘s Pyramids Of Mars (The Eye of Horus, time travel through a portal in a sarcophagus), a soupçon of Twelfth Night (cross-dress and find love) and a Camel that might have a cousin playing offsider to Shrek.
Savournin also directs proceedings and while he discharges that function with commendable certainty, it must be said that more detached eyes could have mined the material for more surprising effect. Familiarity does not necessarily breed inspiration or innovation, and more of both, in the playing and the production, would serve the writing better.
Sean Turner provides quite a happy and nicely conceived set, giving the impression of the hot Egyptian sands easily as well as solving the problem of the time portal easily and using hieroglyphics to add the expected exoticism. This is a piece which would probably benefit from a larger production, a more lavish set and a bigger ensemble. But Turner more than makes do.
Pace does lag too often. It’s not helped by droll but largely lacklustre arrangements by David Eaton (somemof his lyrics are quite fun though). Tara Randell’s rudimentary, though not uninteresting at times, choreography did not push the entertainment envelope either. A detached director with a fluency in the language of farce may have made this particular mummy rise more glowingly from the darkness.
Mia Walldén’s costumes are suitably cartoonish, especially her Camel out-fit which is a riot of dromedary derring-do and the lavishly flashy King Tut outfit. There is something very Agatha Christie about the spiffing outfits the Carter entourage is given to wear and all of this helps create the right picture. More elaborate garments are showered on Savournin’s Lord Conniving – the armchair outfit is the triumph of the evening.
Vocally, the quintet do not really blend harmoniously enough. Savournin’s extremely powerful bass baritone, silky and smooth, is quite overpowering. Matt R J Ward has a sure, light tenor but tends to push, unnecessarily in an auditorium as intimate as the King’s Head.
Alys Roberts has a quite marvellous high soprano, but was given little opportunity to show it off. Both Francesca Fenech and Philip Lee have voices that are greatly pleasing; Fenech displays excellent line and Lee has superb diction and tonal surety.
The acting varies but rarely surprises. Fenech is quite terrific as Evelyn, and she adopts her male alter-ego with glorious tongue-in-cheek exuberance. She is hard not to love. Likewise, Lee whose Camel has a hump full of banter and whose wonderful embalmed Brucie is the comic highlight of the evening.
Ward has a touch of Charles Hawtrey about him as Carter, but perhaps not enough. More is often best in Pantomime scenarios. The same is true of Roberts, who sometimes seems ill at ease as the titular Tut but who just needs to relax into the overall ridiculousness of both situation and character. She does pull off the remarkable feat of convincingly establishing the Camel as her Tut bestie.
As Lord Conniving, Savournin is as arch as they come, part Dr Phibes, Part The Jungle Book’s Kaa and part Jafar (as is humourusly noted towards the finale). It is a very controlled performance, a kind of salute to the Cumberbatch take on the modern portrayal of villainy – when, perhaps, a more wild-eyed option might have reaped more laughs.
Expect more smiles than laughs, and expect to shout out, sing along, and to hope you are not chosen for stage time. Just like any Pantomime.