THE ELEPHANTOM – National Theatre Shed SE1


For all my pleading I was unable to borrow a child for this 4+ production (school hours, bah humbug!) . But I sat next to one who was, his mother admitted, only just three.  So the first appearance of the life-size, inflatable-bodied sky-blue ghost elephant produced a nervous murmur and a retreat to the maternal bosom.

To be fair,  it appears first by night when the heroine (Audrey Brisson, tiny and indomitable) is tucked up in bed with the lights out.  It would unsettle anyone to find the bedclothes suddenly inflating,  pushed away by a luminous ballooning interloper who rejoins his solid head (creeping in with two puppetteers in view)  and galumphs around chuckling basso-profundo.   But by the time she  accepts a sucky kiss from the trunk and a cuddle of his crepey, bouncy tummy,  the school parties round the stage were firmly on the Elephantom’s side, reaching out to touch his airy backside.    And even my smaller companion was staring,  uncertain but excited.  It is no bad thing to be a bit scared in a theatre and get over it.

I hadn’t known  Ross Collins’ book,  but in Ben Power’s adaptation  the story of the troublesome visitor is told without words,  clearly and wittily in physical moves and mutters.   A humdrum day with parents, breakfast, school and TV is established,  Laura Cubitt and Tim Lewis semi-stylized as the busy unseeing parents,   Avye Leventis  hilarious as a teacher scuttling about with box-files and a hairdo full of pencils and spare specs.  The silent-movie jerkiness of the adults makes the elephant’s bulging, floating absurdity all the more natural.

At first he just pinches food, plays tricks and commandeers the remote control whenever she is alone;  but next night he gets above himself and invites friends.  Whereon,  with whoops and cheers,  we see how much havoc a gang of disco-dancing baby elephantoms can wreak in a living room.  They twerk the front rows and lead a conga line: my tiny neighbour was humming  along enchantedly by now  (there’s a live band  overhead, alongside a frieze of lighted houses which provide the final unexpected joke).

At last Grandma, who being more mature can see the creature, takes the girl  to consult a ghost-removal company.   David Emmings (and assorted body parts of others) do vaudeville trick-hands puppetry behind a desk,  and there is an exhilarating battle through a warehouse of animated boxes to find a way to de-elephant the home.     All this,  as I say, is evoked without dialogue but with perfect clarity: direction is split between master-puppetteers Toby Olie and Finn Caldwell , with input from Marianne Elliott and design by Samuel Wyer.

The puppetry is superb, as you’d expect,  and full of heart.  Older children will love a beautiful short essay in the programme on how to make objects come alive.  Younger ones – well, they’ll talk for weeks about big blue flying naughty elephants.  So will I.

box office   020 7452 3000   to 11 Jan     Shed partner:  Neptune

rating:  four   4 Meece Rating


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