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Egyptian Extravaganza (COLAB Factory, London): Review

Egyptian Extravaganza Tut tut! The cast of 'Egyptian Extravaganza'. Photograph: Courtesy of Curious Flamingo Productions.

Egyptian Extravaganza is a panto-esque pastiche that packs an unexpectedly poignant punch regardless of its rough edges.

You’re invited to “Toots'” party in Egyptian Extravaganza, as King Tutankhamun is eager to see the world that has been staring back at him for nearly one hundred years, and find out the real truth behind his great kingdom. But depending on who’s version of the “truth” you listen to, finding out about his identity and culture, old and new, will prove more difficult than expected.

Writing

I’ll admit that I do have quite the love affair with Egypt. When I was sixteen, I was lucky enough to go on a family holiday on a Nile cruise, and the country and the history fascinated me. We’re not just talking about pyramids and tombs, but also about tour guides taking our family out for coffee and shisha deep in the non-tourist part of Luxor, and being invited to drink hibiscus tea with shop owners in Hurghada. But ultimately, despite getting off the beaten track a little more than most, my interest in Egypt and Egyptology is still more fascination than empathy and understanding. I’m no anthropologist or Egyptologist, and visiting the country for two weeks over 15 years ago hardly qualifies me as an expert on modern Egyptian culture. People’s “fascination” of Egypt is pretty much what Egyptian Extravaganza gets down to exploring, trying to get to the bottom of Western obsession of Egypt especially as so much can still be traced back to 1920s orientalism, which still clouds modern-day interest.

Egyptian Extravaganza is a wonderfully neurotic beast. King Tut is an American party girl, and there are other characters from a snobby archaeologist, a 1920s flapper, and even a mysterious jinn. The show goes from outright OTT lunacy to really deep and striking moments. For example, a sound wall of academic and stale history accounts break through to something deeply personal and real, and the impact is really palpable. It might be a little schizophrenic, but it actually makes you think whilst simultaneously being quite a silly piece of entertainment. To top it all off, and Egyptian Extravaganza’s coup de grace, the evening ends with an actual discussion between actors and audiences about the nature of cultural appropriation. It’s quite awkward and unexpected at first, but abrupt as it is this does tie together the little provocations Egyptian Extravaganza has left along the way, culminating in an ultimately timely and important conversation. Having brought an Egyptian friend with me, I was a bit worried that Egyptian Extravaganza might offend and/or bore them. But the fact that they were just as prompted and pricked with introspection about their own culture and heritage, plus the view of it via a Western lens, shows that this isn’t some white-glazed liberal indulgence, but a piece with some really empathy, intelligence, and thought behind it. But given that producer Soha Khan hails from the Middle East, that’s hardly a surprise.

The main problem with the text for Egyptian Extravaganza is that it’s just a bit messy at points. We’re whiplashed from story to story in ways that don’t feel too interlinked or relevant at first. It’s all just a little unclear initially about what Egyptian Extravaganza is trying to say. With Egyptian Extravaganza coming in at around 40 minutes, including the mandatory audience discussion, means it feels like there is so much more scope to explore the stories and provide further provocation and thought that just isn’t being exploited. Thankfully, by the end, the crux of what Egyptian Extravaganza is trying to say is clear and coherent enough to get something from it, but its slightly messy and rushed state leaves you thinking that something more intricate and exploratory would be more satisfying.

Direction & Production

COLAB Factory is a theatre venue that specialises in providing a space for immersive theatre performances, and Egyptian Extravaganza is a show that tries to exploit this opportunity. But the problem is for what the show is trying to do, the attempt at an immersive experience feels forced rather than something that suits its concept. As well as the issues of trying to ensure everything is seen by all of its audience, which the space and how its used really doesn’t lend well to, you leave Egyptian Extravaganza feeling that its immersive format doesn’t really add anything. Yes, it gives the opportunity for some really great bits of audience interaction, especially King Tut’s swanning about the audience whilst being explained the essence of Egyptian culture with the rest of us, but Egyptian Extravaganza could possible be just as impactful in a more traditional theatre space with the added bonus of being more comfortable and easier viewed.

The only other frustration of the production is that a really great moment involving puppetry never seems to be capitalised upon again, adding to the sense that there’s so much more than could be gotten out of Egyptian Extravaganza given further development. However, other than that, director Rosalind Othen really does a great job of pushing a sense of crazed fun and thought throughout the show. It might feel rough around the edges, but it certainly doesn’t drag or languish, feeling feisty regardless of any other criticism.

Cast

There’s a really spunky little cast here that are really enjoyable to be in company of. They get into their ridiculous personas with aplomb that makes the silliness of parts of Egyptian Extravaganza quite enjoyable. But they all also snap into the undercurrent of pathos effortlessly. For example, there’s one character’s needle-skip from frantic flapper into Shakespeare’s Cleopatra that is a really haunting moment that takes you by surprise and adds to the poignancy the piece. Whilst the text might need some more development, Egyptian Extravaganza’s cast are far from the rough edge that needs tidying up.

Verdict

Even in its current state, Egyptian Extravaganza is absolutely worth seeing for its punch of pertinent discussion and for its fabulous fun. With more development to deepen its exploration of its themes and tidy itself up, it could be a real glittering discovery.

Egyptian Extravaganza plays at the COLAB Factory, London, SE1 4AU, until 13 May 2017. Tickets are £10 (concessions available). To book, visit www.colabfactory.co.uk.