ELEPHANT at the Bush Theatre
“Lucas’ script is beautiful. It is subtle and thoughtful and surprisingly funny.”
This urgent and compelling one woman show bursts onto stage with joy and with unapologetic nuance and complexity.
Writer and performer Anoushka Lucas combines live music and performance in a show which calls itself ‘part gig, part musical love story, part journey through empire’.
The play flickers between the late 1990s and late 2010s dipping into vignettes of protagonist Lilah’s life, which explore her relationship with music, race and class. These are interspersed with live songs played by Lucas on the slowly spinning piano in the centre of the stage.
Lucas’ script is beautiful. It is subtle and thoughtful and surprisingly funny. Through dissecting the historical origins of the piano and sorting through her own life, this character finds truths about the way she has been treated, and society’s tacit complicity in that. It is at once scorching social commentary and personal soul searching. The language, particularly in a motif about the butchery of elephants in the ivory trade, is startling and haunting.
“The music has a quiet lyrical beauty”
Director Jess Edwards, who also developed the piece with Lucas, makes consistently striking choices. The play is in the round, creating an intimate and conspiratorial tone. As well as creating light and shade through words and song, there are moments of physical theatre. While voiceover (by sound designed XANA) plays of Lilah’s auditions in the music industry, she morphs herself into forced shapes, using the piano as a tool to flatten herself ever further. Her extreme physicality underpins the harshness of the words.
As Lilah narrates her life she embodies her younger self, full of naive and confident enthusiasm, as well as her more reserved adult self, afraid of coming off as weird. It is a challenging performance, one which requires deft handling of emotional and physical shifts, and Lucas thrives in it.
The music has a quiet lyrical beauty. At times in comparison to the strength of the prose it leaves something to be desired. But it’s a beautiful way to break the narration and Lucas pours her soul into it.
Georgia Wilmot’s set design is masterful. The centre of the stage is a pit, with a piano and a small bookshelf. Lucas is able to clamber over these as well as play the piano. The pit itself slowly spins during the musical scenes, adding an ethereal beauty to the music.
The lighting design, by Laura Howard, is soft and pastel toned. Paper lampshades hang in the audience, glowing blue and pink, and flicker with the notes of the piano. There is a shimmering orb of coloured light which surrounds the pit, and pulsates in time with the music. It is rare to see lighting design that feels so fresh, and so exciting, while remaining tonally in keeping with the piece.
Elephant is a love story and a coming of age and a call to arms. It is a realisation of silencing and the power of speaking out. It is searing, and powerful, but strangely uplifting.
ELEPHANT at the Bush Theatre
Reviewed on 19th October 2023
by Auriol Reddaway
Photography by The Other Richard
Previously reviewed at this venue: