Writer: Michael Morpurgo
Adaptor and Director: Simon Reade
The history of Germany and the history of the twentieth century are closely aligned; from the escalating naval arms race to the causes and consequences of the First and Second World Wars, from fascist rule making way for the equivalent privations of communist leadership to the growing Americanisation of Europe. Michael Morpurgo’s The Elephant in the Garden adapted by the Barn Theatre charts some of those developments through the eyes of Lizzie, a child whose story begins with the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Born in Dresden in 1929, Lizzie is a child when her father goes off to war and never returns. By the time she is 16 years old the RAF are bombing her city and she is forced to leave with her mother, only they have an elephant called Marlene in tow that Mutti had been caring for at the zoo. On their journey, they meet a Canadian pilot, a farmer, a Countess, soldiers and fellow refugees all of whom fall in love with Lizzie and the elephant in the garden.
Running at just over an hour Morpurgo’s story has an episodic quality as children’s stories often do that offers adapter and director Simon Reade plenty of different characters and incidences to dramatise. Staged as a monologue, these move the story along but it does also means that a plot covering many years and the numerous secondary creations pass in a whirl of encounters that slightly lack variety.
Framed as a flashback from the fall of the Berlin wall, Lizzie’s experience concentrates primarily on the years before and during the Second World War. Aimed at children, the intended age-range of this Barn Theatre production is less easy to determine from the staging choices which predominantly rely on narrative description and some enacted scenes in which the character of Lizzie also recreates conversations with everyone who crosses her path.
For a younger audience, Reade’s production needs a little more pizazz particular for remote viewing. Designer Max Johns has created a fragment of the broken and bunting-draped Berlin Wall as the play’s permanent backdrop and a smattering of lighting and sound effects usefully create bombing raids in Dresden as well as their family’s journey to the countryside. But looking to equivalent adaptations of Morpurgo’s work some scope for puppetry or even video design might have added an extra magic for its digital viewers.
Alison Reid plays Lizzie progressing through her childhood and into the experience of a young woman who moves beyond the charm of pet elephants to noticing a particular young aviator that the family encounters by chance. Reid conjures up these various scenarios well, maintaining an energy throughout to progress the story and makes each of its chapters quite distinct.
Bookending this particular adaptation with the fall of the Berlin Wall is a bit of a stretch given very little of the experience in Germany from 1945-1989 is included, requiring a substantial and unexplained time leap in the show’s final minutes. An The Elephant in the Garden is solidly entertaining with a likeable heroine but needs a little more stage magic to bring it more fully to life.
Runs here until 18 April 2021