Despite my religious upbringing, I didn’t recognise the hymn with which Mummy begins with, being set in a church school alumni ‘supper’ (as opposed to ‘dinner’, which says something about what sort of school this is). Nonetheless, this was not an occasion for organised religion to be lampooned – a missed opportunity, some would argue, but there is a pun on the show’s title, as Professor Elizabeth Niccoll (Amy Gwilliam) takes to the proverbial lectern (there isn’t an actual one) to present a lecture on ancient Egypt.
The first few moments are very much in the mould of breaking the audience in gently, with quips about childhood experiences when Niccoll attended the school that she has returned to. There was a seemingly intelligent and sophisticated sense of humour, but this ‘lecture’ remained remarkably accessible throughout. I found the more philosophical aspects rather interesting, and the more personal aspects less so, but this really is a case of one person’s pleasure is another person’s pain. There’s much to be gained from taking in the details about Niccoll’s mother passing on and all its implications.
It all comes together under this umbrella theme of death that sees Niccoll taking about mummification one moment and her own late mother the next. The variation in pace helped to maintain interest – the almost breakneck velocity at which the mummification process was described, for example, would have been exhausting to watch had the show carried on to the end at that speed.
I couldn’t quite tell whether the two volunteers brought on stage to assist Niccoll at one point were stooges; my fellow theatregoer was confident they were. It didn’t make any difference, either way, inasmuch as it was pleasing to see that Gwilliam’s Niccoll was happy for herself to receive the same treatment one of her volunteers was subjected to. “I can’t cry,” Niccoll declares at one point, with some uncertainty. I very nearly did, though mine were tears of laughter rather than of sadness, such was the depth of hilarity on show.
In the exploration of different death rituals in various parts of the world, British funerals were portrayed as relatively normal. Viewed from the outside in, however, they aren’t – I recall Sir Lenny Henry in one of his live stand-up shows some years ago talking about how his parents and other relatives, from Jamaica, found the sharing of an amusing (albeit tasteful) anecdote at a funeral bizarre. And yet it happens (not universally, of course) at British funerals. But for Sir Lenny’s parents, there is no room for laughter during a period of mourning.
I mention that as it seems to me the sort of thing that the show is, in part, aiming for, challenging its audiences to think about death more widely. The script is allowed to shine in a borderline spartan set, and this show was certainly a thoughtful and convincing one – despite the cabaret venue setting, the more poignant moments were observed with complete silence from the audience, not even the clinking of wine glasses or anything else. It really was that absorbing a performance. One of those shows that packs in more into an hour than some shows do in two-and-a-half, I found this to be a gloriously quirky and remarkable production.
Seventeen years ago, during break, Elizabeth lost her mother. She was sixteen. Two days later, she started her period. Ouch.
Today, a celebrated Egyptologist, Profesor Niccoll has returned as Guest of Honour to her secondary school’s annual Alumni event. She has chosen to use the platform to promote her new book: MUMMY or the Art of Saying Goodbye.
She knows everything about death. She thinks.
But confronted by ghosts of her past, memories stir and a Mummy returns.
The time has come to unwind.
Written & performed by Amy Gwilliam
Co-created & directed by Sophie Larsmon
Sound Design by Jo Walker
Produced by Solar Productions
With thanks to Jenny Lee & Lucy Hopkins