An Elephant in the Garden. Review. Northcott Theatre, Exeter.
The elephant in the room for children is that in Simon Reade’s production of Michael Morpugo’s novel there is no elephant. It’s a huge let down. It’s in the title and the elephant dominates the novel, but all we get is a middle-aged woman giving an hour long animated soliloquy.
For a child who has read the story of wartime survival in Dresden during the collapse of the Third Reich in Germany in 1945 the drama An Elephant in the Garden is a huge disappointment. Staged in the Northcott’s theatre the play as such presented by Poonamallee Productions and the Devon theatre is essentially a dramatized story telling of Morpurgo’s novel. Alright in a smaller and more intimate venue but in the large space at the University it lost a great deal and short-changed the few children in the audience.
For the audience was overwhelmingly adults in number. For them Michael Morpurgo hit all the right notes for his 21st century look back at defeated Germany. Nobody wanted to be a Nazi. Being nasty to Jews was an embarrassment, and the bombing of Dresden by the RAF was in effect a war crime. It was all a bit predictable.
Director Reade failed to reinvent Morpurgo’s novel as dramatic entertainment for children – instead it was a tedious revisionist retelling of how the end of the war ended in the Fatherland through the pages of novel without the charm. However, Alison Reid’s performance was commendable. She told the story with verve and strong characterisation but in a vast space like the Northcott she needed more energy. The text alas was against her. Yawns and fidgeting soon set in amongst the few children in the audience. So many characters and so many bad German accents and even worse juggling. Who needs to know the Russians are coming from the East and the Nazis are brutes? We wanted to know about the elephant, how big was it, what noises it made, and how much it ate, and how many poos it did a day. The love story was interesting but this wasn’t the pulsating hormonal power found in the Diary of Anne Frank.
Morpugo’s text didn’t help, with its Hitler assassination note and its bland dialogue and descriptions. It made global war boring. Chris Samuel’s design – a limited circular set within crumbling walls kept captive Alison Reid who wasn’t allowed to interact with the audience as she raced around the tiny space like a demented construction worker in her dungarees. She seemed rather pleased to come to the end of the 65 minute show – ten minutes shorter than advertised – as she gave the only moment of real entertainment for kids with a piece of clowning and juggling to celebrate the end of the Berlin Wall.
In the more intimate confines of the Brewery in Bristol the show should connect rather more and perhaps have a little more umpf. But the sound effects were weak, the props few in number and without some sort of theatrical elephant children won’t rate it. Instead they’ll see it for it is – an enjoyable storytelling show for adults who want their revisionist preconceptions of World War II reinforced. For children it was a bore.
Harry Mottram Reviewed Fri Oct 24th 2014 Two stars
The show continues to Sat 25th Oct at the Northcott Theatre, Exeter, before moving to the Brewhouse at The Tobacco Factory in Bristol for a run from November 4th-15th. For more details visit http://www.tobaccofactorytheatres.com and http://exeternorthcott.co.uk