King’s Head Theatre, London – until 6 January 2018
2017 may not be London’s best year for pantomime. Rumours abound that even the ever-fresh and inventive Hackney Empire has produced an early Christmas turkey, and for up to £125 a seat at the London Palladium, with sexagenarian stars Elaine Paige, Nigel Havers and Gary Wilmot – anyone under thirty may think they’ve wandered into an uncharacteristically glittery care home.
So anything which strikes an original or independent line is to be welcomed. Including Charles Court Opera‘s carry-on up the Nile with Howard Carter and the piercing of Tutankhamun’s Tomb. It’s 1922, and nobody’s a flapper, in fact it’s all boy scout seriousness, classical references and painful puns. If Jacob Rees-Mogg did panto, this would be it.
Everything good rests on the broad shoulders and Borat-like moustache of director, writer, star and Sheffield export John Savournin. Not only does he have the best jokes and costumes as ‘Lord Conniving’ – including a priapic armchair – he has a gift for comedy and a mellifluous bass-baritone used to excellent effect. In a cast of five he is, literally and metaphorically, head and shoulders above the rest.
Everything else is a bit laboured – Tutankhamun himself (Alys Roberts) is reduced to a Welsh Jimmy Krankie, and when Carter’s buxom girlfriend masquerades as a male professor, the jokes are both weary and obvious: if this was an end-of-year show in the office canteen with Jim from Accounts and Maureen from Marketing playing the romantic leads, you’d think it was marvellous.
Philip Lee gets plenty of audience sympathy as a put-upon camel, but he has to work hard for it. Something strange happens to operatically-trained voices when they have to be bent around a pop song, and there are times when even in the tiny auditorium of the King’s Head you wonder if they should have been miked.
It was an all-adult audience at press night, and I worried whether children would take to the complex and rather unfamiliar story, let alone a Bruce Forysth game show last aired in 1977, and whether it was quite smart enough for the grown-ups.
Ancient Egyptians pulled your brain out with a hook through your nose. So there are worse experiences.