I’d like to start this review with an old joke that was doing the rounds at school circa fifty years ago:
Question: What do you get when an elephant defecates (shorter words were used at the time) on a bell?
One of the most wonderful things about theatre is that different members of the same audience can watch the same show and have so completely different a reaction to it. The Magician’s Elephant opened a couple of weeks ago to a range of mixed reviews, from 2 stars to 4 stars. At last night’s performance quite a few people gave it a standing ovation. As we were leaving the theatre, we heard one woman say to her friend that she enjoyed it more than Matilda. On the other hand, as we left the auditorium for the interval break, we heard another woman say to her child, “well, they do say that the second act is better than the first…” Such a wide range of reactions, an experience you can only get in the theatre. And it was a complete joy to be back in the happy buzz of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre for the first time since The Boy in the Dress almost exactly two years ago, before all that horrible pandemic interregnum.
As a rule of thumb, I much prefer a brave failure of a production to a lazy success. However, gentle reader, it would be wrong of me to say I enjoyed something, and saw value and merit in something when neither was true. Thus, with a sad heart, I must report a serious crime to you. It happened on the stage of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre last night. It involved a waste of the audience’s time, the cast’s talent, the RSC’s resources and, above all, the unforgivable theatrical crime of creating an evening of sheer tedium. Yes, I’m afraid, The Magician’s Elephant is a bit of a stinker. Shame indeed, as Kate DiCamillo’s 2009 children’s novel of the same name sounds rather a hoot. An anarchically inventive story where a boy named Peter suspects his sister (whom his guardian has told him is dead) is still alive, and a fortune-teller foresees that an elephant will lead him to her. Lo and behold, at the opera house, a magician performs a trick that makes an elephant crash through the ceiling. Surely some coincidence? How and why did it happen? Will Peter be reunited with his sister? Did the Opera House have insurance?
From such inspirational lunacy Nancy Harris and Marc Teitler have distilled a book, music and lyrics totally lacking in spark, humour or emotion and have created a piece that’s as heavy and slow as a brigade of pachyderms. The constant repetition of lines within songs is abominable, and simply kills the show even before you consider any other aspects of it. As soon as one character comes up with a sentence, it gets pummelled to death by singing it again, and again, and again. (And again.) As the show went on, I tried my hardest to refrain from shouting out “noooo!” and “aaargh!” and “someone come up with another line!” at sequences like: “Follow the elephant, follow the elephant, follow the elephant, follow the elephant, follow the elephant, follow the elephant, follow the elephant, follow the elephant” which was closely followed by “don’t follow the elephant, don’t follow the elephant, don’t follow the elephant, don’t follow the elephant, don’t follow the elephant, don’t follow the elephant, don’t follow the elephant, don’t follow the elephant” ad nauseam. Bear in mind that at this stage of the show I don’t think we’d even seen the elephant yet – another problem of the show in that it’s all talk but precious little action.
If I had a pound for every time the injured Mme LaVaughn bemoaned “I was crushed by an elephant” to which the magician responded with “I only meant lilies”, I could charter a private jet to Bermuda. Well, not quite, but you get my drift. The repetitions throughout were so exasperatingly boring, it was though it had been written as a punishment; stay behind after school and write fifty times, I must not follow the elephant. To be fair, there is one good song, The Count who doesn’t Count, but it’s elongated beyond elasticity so that by the end the fun of it has been extinguished. But for the most part the songs are drab, dreary and forgettable.
Mother always said, if you can’t say something nice about someone, say nothing. Of course, as always, I will do my best to accentuate the good bits. This won’t take long. There is one very good performance by Jack Wolfe as Peter, who conveys a very real, wistful sense of loneliness, on a search for his missing sister to make his family complete again. He also has a great singing voice and an impish stage presence. I also enjoyed the performance of Miriam Nyarko as Adele, the feisty orphan with an inbuilt spirit of adventure/fantasist, possibly the only character who’s allowed to show a genuine sense of fun. Such a shame, then, that when the two are reunited as brother and sister (gasp! Who knew to look in the likeliest place to find her?) it’s a moment surprisingly devoid of emotion that registers no higher a reaction than an implied “oh, that’s nice”. Sam Harrison makes the best of the quirky Count Quintet and tries his damnedest to bring out as much humour as possible from his characterisation as a hen-pecked husband. Mark Meadows looks like he’s stepped out of another production as old soldier and Peter’s guardian Vilna Lutz, but that’s quite appropriate as the character is trapped in a post-war PTSD-style existence. It’s a shame that the production doesn’t integrate him more into the story.
And of course, there’s the elephant, who’s a technical treat and a slice of puppetry perfection; she looks pretty much like the genuine article and her trunk is carefully operated to cleverly express her thoughts. Sadly, the elephant only really has one thought, which is that she is sad and unwell and she wants to go home. Peter understands her plight and tells us that she is sad and unwell and wants to go home. In fact, he tells us several times. I think we understood it the first time, Peter. Sad and unwell and wants to go home? Yes. Sad and unwell and wants to go home.
Elsewhere some of the characterisations go rather awry. Forbes Masson’s cartoony Police Chief is all light and no shade – all Keystone Kop where we could have done with the occasional whiff of Bergerac. Amy Booth-Steel’s narrator should have been a conduit between the Stratford audience she constantly chats with and a distant land of magic, but instead came across as rather smug and self-important. For our performance the role of Countess Quintet, usually played by Summer Strallen, was played by Alison Arnopp as a virtual copy of Queen Elizabeth from Blackadder 2. The endless screechy petulance wasn’t remotely endearing or entertaining even as a pantomime villain. Marc Antolin, an actor I always admire and who can create genuine magic on stage with his clown and movement skills, seems sadly restrained in his role as police officer Leo, and you only occasionally get a glimpse of his true talent.
There are many underwhelming moments in this production; I choose only one to illustrate where it could have been so much better than it is. There’s a scene where Adele triumphantly gets to turn the tables on the wicked Count and Countess by strapping them down and hurling a bucket of elephant dung over them. It should be a moment where revenge is sweet and the baddies get their come-uppance. The dung should cover them and, much to their hilarious struggles to get away from it, they’re slopped with the stinky stuff. Everyone in the audience shrieks with disgusted delight. However. Instead, the Count and Countess, clearly no more strapped down than if a Christmas paper chain was securing them, get the bucket tipped over them to reveal it contains nothing more than a bit of few strands of grass or straw. It sits on the Countess’ lap and looks ridiculous. A true disappointment and an opportunity wasted.
A good Christmas show should be a thing of joy. What have the poor kids done to deserve this? Mrs Chrisparkle was itching to leave at the interval, which would have been a mistake for more than one reason. The interval lady was right, the second act is undoubtedly better than the first; for one thing, the plot actually progresses (whereas the first act is static and irrelevant) and there is some emotion (the first act is devoid of emotion). Regrettably, the emotion is pure schmaltz, but if you can somehow accept the tenet that the elephant is a symbol of a kinder, more wholesome society, then you might get something out of it. We couldn’t and didn’t. “Hate” is a strong reaction to a theatre production; I’ve only hated one other RSC show in the forty-five years since I first saw the company, and that was the recent Macbeth that became a prisoner to the misplaced vision of its director. But at least that had a vision, that you could disagree with. The Magician’s Elephant is rudderless, with a false sense of its own significance, and certainly of its own entertainment value. Couldn’t wait to leave.
Production photos by Manuel Harlan