The Magician’s Elephant – The Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

Reviewer: James Garrington

Book: Nancy Harris

Music: Marc Teitler

Lyrics: Nancy Harris and Marc Teitler

Writer: Kate DiCamillo

Director: Sarah Tipple

The Magician’s Elephant is a bold choice for a Christmas production. The Royal Shakespeare Company always likes to present people with an alternative to the ubiquitous pantomimes, but – particularly at a time when the world has been going through a dark period – as a reopening for the Royal Shakespeare Theatre this one feels as grey as its eponymous pachyderm.

We’re in the town of Baltese, where nothing special ever happens. There’s been a war and young Peter Duchene has been orphaned. Then one day in the market square he spots a fortune-teller’s tent, with a sign which promises the answers to the most profound questions. There he discovers that the sister whom he thought was dead still lives and that he must follow the elephant. But there are no elephants in Baltese.

Meanwhile, in the Opera House, a magician is performing tricks and he conjures up – you’ve guessed it – an elephant…

After a bright start from Amy Booth-Steel’s Narrator, the first act moves along quite slowly as we meet the characters and learn about the back story. Things feel rather downbeat, everyone has problems, Colin Richmond’s design is grey and muted. Then we meet the elephant, and it’s a thing of wonder. Designed by puppetry director Mervyn Millar and co-designer Tracy Waller, it is as realistic a depiction as you could hope to see. Where the puppets in The Lion King or War Horse are stylised this has everything you could hope for from an elephant puppet and it draws a gasp of appreciation when it appears. It’s operated by Zoe Halliday, Wela Mbusi and Suzanne Nixon, whose attention to detail and teamwork is a joy to behold.

Things pick up the pace a little after the interval and the plot starts to move along to the inevitable finale of happiness and forgiveness. On the whole, the characters are too two-dimensional, but there are a number of stand-out performances. Booth-Steel’s narration has an air of quiet delight, and Forbes Masson’s Police Chief has an almost slapstick comedy feel, performing like the Keystone Kops while looking more like Ronnie Corbett’s memorable depiction in The Two Ronnies. Summer Strallen’s Countess Quintet is in full-on Disney villain mode, with a costume reminiscent of Cruella de Vil as she bemoans the fact that the elephant has stolen her thunder as the high point of the social scene, and deciding that the best course is it lock it up in her ballroom and control access to it. Sam Harrison shines as her husband, the downtrodden Count Quintet. Jack Wolfe is in great voice as protagonist Peter, and Miriam Nyarko gives us an energetically feisty performance as Adele, or Adele the Brave as she likes to call herself.

Musically there are a few high points in what is otherwise a fairly bland score. Discipline, Control, Routine shows off the vocals of the company and highlights the slick choreography by Francesca Jaynes, as does The Count who Doesn’t Count, an upbeat duet between Harrison and Nyarko. Then we have the finale, a very Disneyesque Anything Could Happen wrapping things up on a high but saccharine-sweet point.

The most memorable part of the whole thing is surely the elephant and the puppetry, which are a delight. Although aimed at a slightly younger audience, The Magician’s Elephant feels alternately downbeat, worthy and moralising with intermittent touches of humour. It’s enjoyable enough in its way but lacks the exuberant anarchy of Matilda.

Runs until 1 January 2022

The Reviews Hub Score

Memorable for the puppetry

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