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.
Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Wednesday 3rd April, 2019
On the occasion of their 75th birthday, twin sisters Nora and Dora Chance receive an invitation to the 100th birthday party of their strange and estranged father, Melchior Hazard, a feted actor of the old school. As the twins get ready, they recount the story of their family. It’s a tale of the theatre, of absentee fathers, of choosing a family…
With this adaptation of the Angela Carter novel, Emma Rice makes a welcome return to form and to the stage, appearing as Nora Chance alongside Gareth Snook’s Dora. The pair are well-suited, and so are the other pairs of actors who portray the twins at earlier points in their lives and dancing careers. Members of the beret-sporting chorus step forward and assume the roles of Melchior and his twin Peregrine, and the action flows fluidly through the stages of the story. Fluidity is key, here; gender fluidity and colour fluidity in the casting, which adds to the theatricality of the telling and detracts nothing from the spellbinding charm of the enterprise.
Paul Hunter (the older Melchior) is a hoot as end-of-the-pier comic, Gorgeous George; the show has a definite whiff of seaside postcard and music hall vulgarity – which makes it all the more glorious. Long-time Rice collaborator, Mike Shepherd (the older Peregrine) also features as a deadpan stagehand, but it’s Katy Owen’s Grandma Chance, waddling about in a body suit who garners the most laughs from the more outre material.
Melissa James and Omari Douglas portray the twins at the height of their careers, getting to know the ways of the world and men. The dancing is lively and also elegant throughout, thanks to Etta Murfitt’s choreography, and the music, supplied by an onstage trio (augmented by cast members) is sublime, with Ian Ross’s original compositions nestled side-by-side with classics like “Let’s Face The Music and Dance” and “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby”.
Mirabelle Gremaud and Bettrys Jones bring juvenile energy to the twins as young girls, and Patrycja Kujawska is a dignified presence as the Lady Atalanta. I also enjoy Sam Archer’s Young Peregrine and Ankur Bahl’s posturing Young Melchior.
The whole production has Emma Rice stamped all over it. This is a Kneehigh show in everything but name. The fun, the storytelling, the music, the puppetry, the romanticism, the wisdom… It’s all here to be savoured.
A magical, captivating piece that tickles the ribs and touches the heart. It’s a wise critic who knows something special when he sees it.
Doublet-trouble: Melissa James and Omari Douglas. (Photo: Steve Tanner)