Writer: Nicolas Billon
Director: Jason Moore
A sharp 65-minutes, Nicolas Billon’s new one-act play set in a psychiatrist’s office creates a snapshot of a much larger set of lives and circumstances. And while the dynamic of doctor and patient exists, The Elephant Song works hard to subvert our expectations in a piece that feels like a theatrical puzzle with further clues and information teasingly revealed as the story unfolds. That is, if any of it is true.
Following the sudden disappearance of therapist James Lawrence, hospital director Dr Greenberg meets with the last patient he saw – Michael – a long-term resident obsessed with elephants. But conversation with Michael proves to be a series of knots and as Greenberg unravels one part of the story, new entanglements appear, not least a serious accusation that might be the key to the mystery.
Billon’s play, directed for Park Theatre by Jason Moore, is a captivating experience, a tightly honed continuous drama that revels in the elliptical nature of its central character. It is an odd play at times, shooting off into narrative tangents, misdirection and occasionally skirting towards clichéd or generalised resolutions only to pull back at the last second before the drama heads in another direction, making it elusive but always engaging.
In the character of Michael, Billon has created an intriguingly complicated figure, someone who exaggerates and lies but who tells only one extended story about himself in the entire play focused on a childhood safari that proves decisive. This character sits on the line between frustrating and deeply vulnerable, contradictory in his attitude to others depending on whether they are in the room and blithely discussing chocolates and abuses in the same, apparently unruffled, tone.
What prevents The Elephant Song from becoming too generic is the establishment of a shifting power dynamic between the two men and of the wider context in which this conversation fits. It is not an official medical appointment so Greenberg can vent his frustrations and engage in a proper dialogue as part of the mystery of James Lawrence’s disappearance. Billon’s entire scenario also feels like it belongs in a much wider piece about this troubled hospital, its staff and patients as well as within the long lives of Greenberg and especially Michael who exist beyond this room.
Gwithian Evans creates an interesting presentation of surface and depth within Michael, a performance that has a steadiness of tone and consistency of presentation, as though Michael believes he is fully in control. However, at the same time he offers up great wells of suffering from inside the character that say much about his life before and the traumas that afflict him. Jon Osbaldeston is a great foil as the equally unflustered Dr Greenberg, calmly listening to Michael but always cynical and yet still unable to quite hide his annoyance that seeps through a thinly held professionalism.
Yet the character of Miss Peterson (Louise Faulkner) doesn’t feel quite as real as her companions, part theatrical device to break-up their dialogue at selected moments and part female representation in the story, the purpose of this character is the only part of The Elephant Song that doesn’t quite ring true. But it’s not often a writer leaves you wanting more, but Billon certainly does. The central mystery may be solved but his enigmatic central characters live on.
Runs until 11 February 2023