Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 10th November, 2021
It’s fantastic to be back in the RST, as it reopens with this year’s big family show, based on the Kate DiCamillo novel. Young Peter Duchene visits a fortune teller who intrigues him with a reading involving his presumed-dead sister and an elephant. Next thing you know, an elephant is dropping through the roof of the opera house in a conjuring trick gone wrong—don’t you just hate it when that happens? Peter sees this event as a sign that his entire life has been a lie and sets out to face the elephant and learn the truth…
Holding things together is Amy Booth-Steel as an affable Narrator, breaking the fourth wall with such charm we don’t want to sue her for the damage. A strong ensemble includes delightful turns from Forbes Masson as a tightly wound, paranoid Police Chief, his underlings tumbling around him like Keystone Kops; Marc Antolin and Melissa James evoke empathy as childless couple Leo and Gloria; Sam Harrison’s fruity Count; Alastair Parker’s bumbling magician; Miriam Nyarko’s energetic orphan Adele; and Mark Meadows as Peter’s guardian, former soldier Vilna Lutz whose PTSD is startling, to say the least.
Villain of the piece is the mighty Summer Strallen’s Countess Quintet, who gets the most outlandish costumes. Strallen channels Queen Elizabeth from Blackadder II and Cruella de Vil, with shades of Mozart’s Queen of the Night in her decorative vocal work. It’s a stonking characterisation.
The Elephant itself is from the War Horse school of puppetry, with three operators bringing life to the pachyderm. The scale of the beast is impressive but more so is the way it ‘lives’; there is grace to this animal and sorrow. There is undeniably an elephant in the room with us. It’s a captivating creation, skilfully performed by Zoe Halliday, Wela Mbusi, and Suzanne Nixon.
Giving a phenomenal performance as protagonist Peter is the elfin-featured Jack Wolfe, giving the role a quirky youthful energy, who is nothing short of perfection. Instantly endearing, Wolfe is a true knockout when he sings, demonstrating beautiful vocal control and an impressive range. You get the feeling you’re watching someone who is going to become a massive star.
With book and lyrics by Nancy Harris, and music and lyrics by Marc Teller, the show captures the tone of DiCamillo’s wonderful book. Colin Richmond’s design work delivers the grim, grey city of Baltese, with atmospheric lighting by Oliver Fenwick. It’s Sarah Tipple’s direction that makes us identify with, laugh at, and feel for the cast of offbeat characters, playing the humorous notes broadly and the emotional points deftly. The score is reminiscent of Sondheim and Gilbert & Sullivan and is performed by a tight band under the musical direction of Tom Brady.
It all adds up to a hugely entertaining piece, that speaks to us of people in strange times looking for answers (and not always in the right places), of hope, of the things that unite us rather than those that divide.
Meera Syal’s partially autobiographical novel comes to the stage via this lively adaptation by Tanika Gupta. It’s the 1970s and Meena is growing up in a Black Country village; she’s already fed up with the demands of family life and so the chance to strike up a friendship with local ne’er-do-well Anita proves irresistible. There is more than a hint of Blood Brothers to it.
Bob Bailey’s set of terraced houses and discarded tyres is the backdrop for this working-class community, a tight-knit group who by and large have welcomed Meena’s family. When a new motorway threatens to run through the heart of the village, tensions break out. It doesn’t help that the official from the council is Punjabi. Racism, depicted early on as the comedy of ignorance, turns nasty and Meena at last sees Anita for what she is.
Mandeep Dhillon shines as Meena, carrying the show as the moody but imaginative teen, sulking and stamping around. Dhillon makes Meena endearing nevertheless. Her rendition of Slade’s Cum On Feel The Noize at a family gathering is a hoot. Jalleh Alizadeh is the pretty but ugly Anita, endowing her with enough of a spark that we hope Meena will help lift her out of her background.
Janice Connolly lends strong support as neighbour Mrs Worrall, and Amy Booth-Steel is twice the value as Anita’s grotesque mother and do-gooding shopkeeper Mrs Ormerod, whose true colours are revealed late in the piece. Joseph Drake convinces as tearaway Sam, disaffected by lack of opportunity, to the point of violence and Nazi salutes. Ameet Chana and Ayesha Dharker are excellent as Meena’s parents – some characters are more rounded than others, which is fine, because we are seeing everything through Meena’s eyes.
There is much to enjoy – the 1970s references, the clash of cultures and some very funny lines. I can’t quite swallow how beautiful they keep saying the village is, given the Coronation Street stylings of the set, but this is more than a period piece, alas. The protests of the locals against the new motorway that is ‘inevitable’ have echoes in the ill-advised HS2 railway, working class youth are still disaffected, and the rise of racist nastiness is with us all over again – you can bet Mrs Ormerod is a UKIP voter these days. The production’s fusion of cultures gives a positive message about Britain – a Bhangra rendition of My Old Man’s A Dustman goes down a treat.
Director Roxana Silbert delivers on the fun, the tension and above all the heart of this story of friendship and family. The whole cast exudes energy and fun but the evening belongs to Mandeep Dhillon in a star turn as a girl forced to grow up.
Mandeep Dhillon and Jalleh Alizadeh (Photo: Ellie Kurttz)