Digital theatre review: Elephant in the Garden
James R | On 15, Apr 2021
Digital theatre has come a long way in recent years and especially in the past 12 months, as theatres have adapted to the coronavirus pandemic before venues can open again. From interactive escape rooms to the National Theatre’s innovative use of backstage corridors in its Romeo & Juliet, the way that theatre and cameras work together has become an interesting, inventive and evolving relationship. Barn Theatre’s production of Michael Morpurgo’s Elephant in the Garden is a comparatively old-fashioned affair, with its staging limited to a single set filmed from an almost static position.
Adapted by Morpurgo collaborator Simon Reade, the play tells the story of Lizzie (Alison Reid), who recalls her younger years in Dresden, when she and her mother (“Muti”) had to flee their home due to the Allied forces bombing the city. With them goes the titular elephant, Marlene, whom Alison brought home from the local zoo to live in their garden. This motley trio spend 1945 travelling the country, crossing paths with a school choir, a Countess and a pilot. And did we mention the elephant?
Needless to say, the creature doesn’t appear properly on-stage – a disappointment, given the advances made in puppetry in the past decade – but Reade’s take on the play intentionally keeps things understated and simple: the whole thing is presented as a one-hander. The stripped-back set (mostly a crumbling wall) is a deceptively chameleonic backdrop, while changes in lighting help to transport us from one location and event to another. But the strength of the show lies in its leading lady, with Reid channeling an engaging energy into her versatile performance. She’s young and innocent one moment, maternal and compassionate the next, and ploddingly elephantine in between.
The camerawork doesn’t match her intense presence, sticking to one or two angles and the odd close-up, but that only highlights how dynamic Reid is, while also letting her place an emphasis on the text’s themes on resilience, teamwork and kindness to strangers. Streaming online during the Easter holidays, the result is a family theatre trip (likely best suited to those aged eight and up) that’s worth trampling to see.
Elephant in the Garden is available to stream until 18th April. Book tickets here.