Saturday, 30 October 2021

REVIEW: The Magician’s Elephant at the Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford-Upon-Avon

The RSC return to their indoor home at Stratford upon Avon with another Children’s show (6+) for the Christmas period hoping to catch the family market as an alternative to Pantomime and produce the next Matilda. You can see the money lavished on this world premiere of a new musical turning Kate Di Camillo’s book into a full-blown production but at two and half hours running time it needs to be good to hold our attention and in reality, would benefit from a heavy pruning of music and business to come in under two hours.

The story seems to borrow from other Children’s stories to create a tale of an orphaned boy and orphaned girl brought together by an Elephant. Peter, we meet above a staircase with his guardian, Vilna (with echoes of Harry Potter under the stairs with the Dursley’s) until he is inspired to search for the truth about himself. Adele, we meet in an orphanage with the Sister until she too sets out in search of dreams (shades of Annie and Miss Hannigan). Their efforts are thwarted by the Countess Quintet (with heavy Cruella De Ville overtones with hatred of children replacing dalmatians) who want to control access to the Elephant that has mysteriously arrived in Baltese (you can’t help but compare that to Joey in War Horse). To cover up the thin elongated plot plenty of comic business is introduced with a Keystone Cop Chief (overplaying the part like Ernie Wise in a play what he wrote) and a playfully downtrodden Count “who does not count”.

Fortunately, all these parts are played by very good actors who in their moments are superb. Jack Wolfe leads the production as an aspirational Peter desperate to learn the truth with a winning look and fine voice. He is matched (when she finally appears) by Miriam Nyarko, as the spirited and defiant Adele. Their energy and touching performances emotionally connect us to the story. Summer Strallen revels in her own wickedness as the Countess and makes a fine double act with Sam Harrison’s Count and we rejoice in their comeuppance. Forbes Masson charges around the stage in frantic pursuit as the ludicrous Police Chief. The story is charmingly narrated, filling in the gaps and playing her part as a Fortune Teller by the delightful Amy Booth Steel whose opening interaction with some excellent projections and the audience promises a magical evening. 

The magic and illusion never really meet the expectation. The Magician (Alistair Parker) himself is a rather dull fellow and his tricks are simple and unexciting. The Elephant he conjures up to fall through a ceiling happens off stage though the Elephant’s head appeared from the backstage gloom promises much, it too disappoints. It is a glorious piece of large-scale puppetry, and the head starts to evoke emotions (just like Joey the horse did) but the middle section seems too high and the rear right leg walks with an awkward limp, and you can see the six puppeteers’ legs clearly in a way that somehow you were distracted from with Joey. It is of course a lumbering beast, and that lack of mobility reduces dramatic options. The final illusion with the Elephant does not match up to the effects in shows like Cursed Child and Back to the Future relying on audience blinders to cover its tracks.

Then there is the new music by Marc Teitler and Nancy Harris. It is a pleasant melodic mix of different style tunes, but few have a hook to last in the memory beyond the final note. Only the comical “the Count who doesn’t count” and the wistful ballad “A lot like me” sung by Peter, are really strong enough and some of the rest could easily be cut to reduce the running time.

The RSC has not economised on the design and setting with a grandiose Victorian underground sewer arching over the stage (Colin Richmond, the designer) and steampunk feel to the drab grey costumes. Only the Countess who sparkles with a range of gloriously over the top gowns, wigs and hats that brighten the stage and the Narrator get to add splashes of colour as she dances across the forestage or appears in the Fortune Teller’s bright red tent. When the snow falls it is projected not “real” and we expected a burst of transformational colour to lift the gloom that never came.

Young children will enjoy the story, recognise the allusions to other stories, identify with the young heroes and enjoy finding the seven pieces of card to make their own elephant puppet hidden around the foyers (as I did with the help of an usher)! Yet to sustain the running time we need more colour, more magic & illusion, a few fewer songs and more stage time for the Elephant to give it more than a walk-on (and walk backwards) part.

Review by Nick Wayne 

Rating: ★★★

Seat: Stalls, Row L | Price of Ticket: £49.50

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