THE ELEPHANT SONG at the Park Theatre
“The audience are kept on the edge of their seats with plenty of will-they-won’t-they moments in the script”
Michael Aleen (Gwithian Evans) is a young man who communicates best when he’s sharing facts about elephants. He’s also institutionalised and is smarter than anyone in the entire hospital. At least, that’s how Nurse Peterson describes him.
The Elephant Song is a poignant three-hander about perception, humanity and trauma, deftly handled by the cast with a lightness of touch that allows the heavier bits to sit just long enough, but which are then expertly transformed into levity thanks to the cast’s and director (Jason Moore’s) impeccable comic timing.
Dr Greenberg (Jon Osbaldeston) is the hospital’s director – on the hunt for missing Dr Lawrence who has disappeared from the psychiatric ward. Michael was the last person to see him alive. The two prowl around the stage together – Michael, playing games with the director, while Dr Greenberg struggles with containing his frustration and bubbling anger. At times it seems as though he might attack Michael and give him a good shake, but Michael is always one step ahead, and this cat and mouse play is perfectly brought together by Moore’s direction.
The constant presence of Nurse Peterson (Louise Faulkner) with her no-nonsense advice to Dr Greenberg is a reassuring one – Faulkner plays her in a matronly way, which is the perfect antidote to the unpredictability of the two men. It’s times with Nurse Peterson that Michael seems most relaxed and the way the cast change their pitch and delivery as frequently as Michael’s mood changes is fascinating to watch.
The audience are kept on the edge of their seats with plenty of will-they-won’t-they moments in the script, written in 2002 by Nicolas Billon. We become part of the same game Michael is orchestrating and at times, the tension is so finely curated by the cast and crew that the air in the theatre appears to freeze, before relaxing each moment finger by finger so the audience is released back to play the game again. Michael really likes playing games, Nurse Peterson tells Dr Greenberg when he arrives.
The set, designed by Ian Nicholas, was pared back enough to allow the dialogue to take centre stage, but there were some nice design touches that were incorporated into the play. The Newton’s Cradle was used to create audible tension, while the ticking metronome played its part when Michael asked Dr Greenberg about his wife’s biological clock. I especially enjoyed the range of psychiatry pictures on the back wall, including a framed print of the Rorschach Test.
If there’s one weak point, it’s that some parts of the script haven’t aged well. There are some slightly uncomfortable fat-shaming jokes and use of the C-word that may have been more acceptable when the script was written, but now feel like unnecessary additions. Of course this is out of the hands of the brilliant actors and director – but perhaps just an interesting reminder that the world is changing quickly, and theatre is an interesting place to see that happen in real time.
Reviewed on 23rd January 2023
by Eleanor Ross
Photography by Giacomo Giannelli
Previously reviewed at this venue: