There is something so alluring about the ancient world of Egypt. From the tombs to the curses and untranslated hieroglyphs, most kids go through an Egypt phase during their childhoods. Emilia Stubbs Grigoriou brings that fascination to the stage with her adaptation of Geoffrey McSkimming’s children’s book Cairo Jim. Jim is this close to uncovering the mystery of Martenarten and his hidden tomb but a rival archeologist just might stop him.
Jim (Logan McArthur) is a typical ancient enthusiast. He’s a British archeologist with a generous patron supporting his research in the Valley of the Kings where, with his side kicks Doris the Macaw (Shabnam Tavakol) and Brenda the Wonder Camel (Tim Ressos), he hopes to find the tomb of Martenarten and preserve the ancient artefacts for future generations. Jim thinks he’s found the missing clue when his rival Captain Neptune Bone (Brendan Layton) destroys the months of work Jim has put in at the dig site.
The set design from Emily Borghi made good use of the large stage space by creating depth in cloth sand dunes and rock walls of various materials. Sound design from Jack Goggin and Steven Hopley kept the action light and emphasised moments of physical comedy to create a more cartoon quality to the production. The only moment of design disappointment came in the retelling of Brenda’s memories with the employment of an overhead projector and a sheet. While the simplicity fit the community atmosphere, the story would have benefited greatly from more sophisticated design solutions.
This is a classic children’s story of adventure, secret riddles, historical curses, and surprisingly helpful talking animals. McArthur’s Jim is conventionally naive, headstrong, and enthusiastic; an admirable hero. His team, however, really steal the show. Tavakol as the puppeteer and voice of Doris is chipper, bright, squawky, with an excellent memory of Shakespeare. Brenda the Wonder Camel, voiced by Felicity Jurd and puppeteered by Ressos, was gentle and so very charming in her mischief. The control of the puppets, which involved a lot of physical commitment and emotional investment from the puppeteers, pulled off the whimsy and delight of this sidekick characters wonderfully.
While the adaptation was of a children’s story, the script was written with a far more adult sensibility. Most jokes were written for adult nostalgia or with complex wordplay that seemed to careen over the heads of younger audience members. At the same time, the slow, story-telling pace of the narrative allowed for many lulls in attention and missed opportunities to capture children’s imaginations. Direction from Stubbs Grigoriou seemed to favour a slower pace and focus on narrative intrigue rather than large or loud moments. Some scenes, such as the deciphering of Martenarten’s riddle, were drawn out and word-heavy, while others overly relied on physical humour to attract attention. The design and the ideas were there to entertain the littlies but the execution missed the mark.
It’s easy to understand the appeal of ancient Egypt for children with mummies and treasure in equal possibility, but perhaps there is something too uncomfortable about watching a white British archeologist advocate for the movement of ancient artefacts to museums when the argument for the decolonisation of museums across the globe still rages on. It would be simple to shrug off Cairo Jim as a classic story of its time, but the stories we tell our children year after year are the stories we tell them to expect and accept. In 2019, let’s challenge our theatres and theatre makers to find new ways of capturing the imagination that do not perpetuate harmful ideas and attitudes.
Cairo Jim and the Tomb of Martenarten is running at the Pioneer Theatre from December 21st – 23rd