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:
The Other Palace
Reviewed – 19th September
“A louder voice, greater dynamic variation and some brutal editing are needed to keep it afloat in the current swamp of new musicals”
The deluge of new musicals on the London theatre scene is a double-edged sword. Whilst this might please devotees of the genre, the wider appeal inevitably evaporates. And for composers and producers, this overcrowding adds its own challenges. The annual BEAM festival for new musicals, for example, received over three hundred pitches to be whittled down to fifty, while the West End continues to churn out re-issues, jukebox musicals, imports and any old film titles.
Thankfully there are now theatres dedicated to developing and promoting new musicals. The Other Palace is at the forefront of this movement, accepting submissions year-round as well as staging its ‘new musical workshop sharings’ where the audience is at the core of the process, witnessing the evolving show and offering feedback. “Normality” is one such musical testing the water. Subtitled “A Musical Guide to Quantifying Love in a World of Frauds and Scammers”, it is as quirky and zestful as its tag line suggests. Writers Jules Kleiser and Nige Reid are both song writers/musicians and have written the score for a four-piece rock band and ten voices. Under Charlotte Peters’ stylish direction, the cast of ten fill the stage, and the auditorium, creating a host of characters without feeling overcrowded.
At the centre is Norman Goodman, a small town, prog-rock obsessed keyboard player, with a nerdiness that is off the scale. Thinking that he is auditioning for a life changing gig he has, in fact, wandered into a corporate interview for a dodgy City trading company. Failing the interview, he nevertheless impresses by fixing the office computer. Invited to design an IT system to predict market trends for the firm, he then unwittingly finds himself embroiled in a Machiavellian financial scam. Norman’s narrow outlook on life is cruelly broadened as he battles with the dilemma of who to trust; a quandary he equates to a scientific equation.
The musical opens with too soft a punch. The band, placed up in the gallery, lack the volume to prick up the ears. But one quickly realises that this is to compensate for the singers not using mics. Whether this is an artistic or financial decision is unclear, but it does lead to problems of projection. Much of the libretto is lost during the solo numbers, particularly when some of the melodies wander beyond the actors’ vocal range. This is not ‘legit’ musical theatre, so the inconsistent quality of the singing can be forgiven, and where technique is occasionally lacking it is certainly made up for by character. Dan Buckley, in fine voice as Norman, is believable as the wunderkind with a heart, while Siobhan Athwal’s love interest mixes a no-nonsense steeliness with a true-hearted empathy. Ken Christiansen is all cockney brass as the bulldog CEO, unaware that all around him are ready to pull the carpet from underneath him. Claire Marlowe stands out as the privileged, upper class Lady Cocksure, with more faces than the town clock, who is intent on bringing everybody down.
But nothing unexpected really happens; either in the comedy, the dialogue or the score. With the exception of a refreshingly surreal Tango and a Ska infused number the soundtrack is quite monotone. It is like the composers are handling the material with kid gloves. There is a rawness to the satire of the book that is unmatched by a slightly reticent, almost polite, delivery of the guitar-based numbers. A louder voice, greater dynamic variation and some brutal editing are needed to keep it afloat in the current swamp of new musicals. At present it feels adrift in its own deference.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
The Other Palace until 21st September
Previously reviewed at this venue: