The Magician's Elephant review: Stomping back with a trumpety-trump triumph
Steve Sutherland reviews The Magician’s Elephant, at the RSC until 1st January
Once upon a time, way back in the mid nineteen nineties, I was attending a small breakfast meeting with Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer who had signed up to host a music awards ceremony I was arranging when quite suddenly, out of the blue so to speak, Vic announced that he would like to enter the stage on a horse. Cue scenes of much perturbation as the venue was the basement ballroom of a club on London’s Tottenham Court Road and there was no way on earth to get a horse down there.
Vic humphed and ha-ed and, after much persuasion, then declared, “Ok then, a hamster,” whereupon Bob helpfully pointed out that it was quite difficult to ride a hamster and anyway, no-one in the audience at the back would be able to see the unfortunate creature.
I can only imagine, then, what fraught conversations must have accompanied the RSC’s decision to stage their new Christmas show around the mystical arrival, through the roof of an opera house no less, of an elephant. But then, imagining - and wishing and hoping and dreaming - are what The Magician’s Elephant is all about. The plot upon which this heart-warming proselytising hangs is, in all honesty, a mite slender. A boy is trying to find a sister he thought was dead and an elephant will die unless she gets back home to Africa, and that’s about it. There are tears along the way and cheers at the end, just as you’d expect from a family Christmas offering, and the outcome is comfortingly pantomime obvious.
What really brings the show to life is a fabulous ensemble of sympathetic characters played with much wit and wallop by one and all. Alastair Parker’s magician is a sheepish and forlorn fellow with a walrus moustache and a lifetime of thwarted ambition who wants everyone to think the falling pachyderm was an accident of fate and that all he really wanted to do was conjure some lilies. Madame LaVaughn is the unfortunate posho who gets crushed by the nelly, beautifully underplayed in a wheelchair by Renu Arora whilst all and sundry around her are hamming it up as if their very lives depend upon it. None is more hysterically desperate than Forbes Masson’s inebriated police chief, played at a paranoid pitch just this side of the full nervous breakdown that Mark Meadows undergoes as Vilna Lutz, the boy’s old soldier guardian, suffering from frightening, repeated bouts of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Jack Wolfe’s Peter Duchene, the boy, is a handsome young whippersnapper with teen-pleasing Harry Styles good looks and a lovely expressive voice. He carries the show nicely while the songs that he’s given don’t quite hit the heights. Did I mention it’s a musical? It is, and every character gets at least one number to tell their tale and stake their claim for our affection. Best by a mile is Summer Strallen’s up-her-own wealthy jacksy Countess Quintet, all operatic swoons and nails-down-a blackboard screech as she bemoans the elephant supplanting her as the major topic of local gossip. She’s only matched by her put-upon fopsome cad of a husband Count Quintet, wonderfully played with cowardly relish by Sam Harrison. His hilariously self-pitying The Count That Doesn’t Count is the show-stealing song, no contest. As for the elephant, well - whisper it so the kids don’t hear - it’s not really real. A life-size puppet housing three actors inside, it’s a marvellous creation managing the amazing feat of conveying its emotions through the slightest swish of its tail and sway of its trunk.
The tale of how it came to become manifest in the wretchedly grey post war town of Baltese is played out against a background of sorrow and despair - the disenfranchised locals trapped in a day-to-day mourning ritual for their recently deceased. Desperately looking for some hope and/or reckoning, they seize upon the elephant as a holy sign, the rumours that one touch of its scaly skin will provide a cure-all for their ills spreading like an epidemic. Although the book on which it’s based was written by Kate DiCamillo back in 2007, the way the mob act as if under mass hypnosis, easily manipulated left, right and centre, bears an obvious resemblance to the scary riotous goings-on during the recent American Presidential election, easy persuasion seeing scapegoats shifting to be considered saviours and vice versa.
Just in case you lose your way or become a bit muddled about what you’re supposed to think or who you’re supposed to root for, director Sarah Tipple has given us a narrator in the shape of Amy Booth-Steel who guides us through proceedings with much thigh-slapping and a principal boyish nod and wink - a mite tiresome for the adults but most likely helpful for the kids. At two hours 40 minutes (interval included) there have also been a few mutterings about it being a bit too long but one of the side effects of having been locked down by Covid is that we have come to truly treasure every precious opportunity to get out and be entertained - whether that be a gig, a play or an exhibition - so you won’t find me complaining. It’s just great to be back actually inside the RSC again, the outside summer site notwithstanding.
You get the distinct impression that the RSC’s greatest wish this Christmas is that this will be the show to trundle out of Stratford to stratospheric worldwide acclaim just as Matilda did. Well, The Magician’s Elephant is no Matilda. But let’s face it, very little is. Still, it's much more likeable than recent seasonal hit-and-missers like the self-congratulatory Boy In The Dress and the overcooked Mouse And His Child. In the immortal words of Larry David, what it is is pretty, pretty good.
Oh, back to the Vic and Bob thing. Vic sulked awhile but finally saw sense and they settled instead on a fake frying pan.