REVIEW: Tutankhamun’s Shoes, English Touring Opera (Polka Theatre)

Opera is not the obvious choice for for a family afternoon out, especially with primary school children. It’s long, complicated and often expensive. Why would anyonetorture themselves by sitting through it with a fidgety small human? English Touring Opera offer the answer, priding themselves on creating high quality participatory opera for children. Their latest offering is Tutankhamun’s Shoes. Aimed at ages 5-11, this 45 minute interactive production is opera as you’ve never seen it before. Mummy and Quaver were invited along to Polka Theatre to watch it this weekend.

Written by Robin Norton Hale, and directed by Lysanne Van Overbeek, Tutankhamun’s Shoes is a brilliant introduction to opera for key stage 2 children. Engaging and interactive, it combines classical singing with a splash of silliness, ensuring that it entertains and educates the young audience. The story is narrated by Nefertiti (Soprano, Claire Wild), who keeps the spirit of Ancient Egypt alive in her reincarnated form as an ever-living cat. Nefertiti takes us on a journey through the ages, from the time of Tutankhamun (Countertenor, Keith Pun) to the 1920s discovery of his treasure-filled tomb.

Back and forth we go in time, learning of King Tut’s lonely childhood, his betrayal by his Uncle Ay (Base-baritone, Adam Maxey) and his burial in a tomb that remained hidden from the world until Howard Carter’s famous discovery. And we wonder how, despite the preservation of his physical form and worldly possessions, we know so little about the man himself. But Nefertiti gives us a glimpse into his world, sharing the story of the sandals hand-woven by his friend, Meryt (mezzo-soprano/contralto, Judy Louie Brown) that mean more to him than all the gold in his tomb.

It’s great fun and puts the young audience at the heart of the action, with lots of interaction between the fabulous four performers and the audience. There are songs to sing, actions to copy and a few lucky children might even find themselves helping out with the process of mummification. The writing is witty and ensures that the adults are just as entertained as the children, as well as giving important life lessons such as how to tell a log from a crocodile. The set and costume design (by designer, Bettina John and Costume Supervisor, Emily May Sions) are also highlights of this excellent production, giving us a sense of being in a very intimate museum exhibit where the sights and sounds of Ancient Egypt are brought to life before our eyes.

Rosabella Gregory’s music strikes just the right balance between introducing operatic singing while still appealing to the tastes of primary school children. Quaver was captivated throughout, sitting bolt upright for the entire performance. When asked whether she had noticed anything unusual about the singing afterwards, it hadn’t even occurred to her that it was a different style to the sorts of shows that she normally sees. She just enjoyed the performance and especially liked King Tut’s singing.

If you are looking to give the children (or, in fact, yourself) a first taste of opera, Tutankhamun’s Shoes is a great way to see what it’s all about. It’s accessible, educational and extremely entertaining. The show is out on tour this Autumn, with lots of school visits plus stops at The Ashmolean Museum and The Great North Museum. Unfortunately all venues are currently sold out so mummies who haven’t booked tickets already may be cursing themselves. (This particular Mummy is tutting at herself for the blatant sexism in that sentence but it was all in the name of a good pun!)

Tutankhamun’s Shoes played at Polka Theatre from 19 to 23 October. We received complimentary press tickets to the 2pm performance on 23 October.

Photo credit: Lidia Crisafulli