Apart from the (not inconsiderable) fact that live audiences have largely had to remain at a home, The Barn Theatre in Cirencester has had a remarkably good lock down pandemic year with a wide ranging and varied programme. Among others, they began with a critically acclaimed production of Henry V, were part of the core of venues which have made two of the biggest online theatre hits What A Carve Up! and The Picture Of Dorian Gray and with their one person Peter Pan came up with one of the best treats over Christmas. They are now going back to the young audience with a pair of plays based on works by popular author Michael Morpurgo. In a fortnight’s time they will be premiering an adaptation of Private Peaceful but first comes An Elephant In The Garden.
Like it’s illustrious mega hit predecessor, the National Theatre’s War Horse, Morpurgo’s story centres on the effect of war on animals – although, actually, the real purpose in both cases is to reveal its effects on human beings. But unlike the National’s piece the story here is much more simply told with just one actor, a minimal set and no attempt to replicate the elephant in concrete form. This is a wise choice as it avoids accusations of cashing in on a winning formula and I don’t suppose for a moment that The Barn and its partner theatre Exeter’s Northcott have even a fraction of the budget to spend – especially when paying audiences are limited to online.
The story has been adapted and directed by Simon Reade and the central narrative is bookended by the falling of the Berlin Wall, that symbol of separation that grew directly out of the aftermath of World War 2. The main thrust though is set in 1945 when Lizzie, the narrator is a growing girl during her early teenage years in Dresden. The city has remained largely untouched by Allied bombing but in the late stages of the war that changes, and almost complete destruction is visited upon the inhabitants who flee to the countryside. Lizzie and her “mutti” (her father is missing in action) are no exception, except that they are accompanied by an elephant which has been rescued from the zoo where her mother worked. The story then follows the various adventures that the trio have as they make their way towards the west and freedom encountering a friendly young Canadian airman along the way. The story highlights the plight of refugees and does not shy away from the horrors meted out by the Nazis to certain sections of the German population.
This is a solo performance, vividly brought to life by Alison Reid who not only narrates as the older Lizzie but also embodies her younger self as well as all the other characters in the piece. And that includes, briefly, the elephant Marlene (named after Marlene Dietrich) who is used to embody the power of stoic persistence in the face of adversity. Reid is a consummate yarnsmith who uses words as her tools rather than relying on costume changes or complicated props to draw us into the narrative – it’s a masterclass of storytelling. She’s a dab hand at juggling potatoes too. Max John’s set of a ruined wall evokes both the specific in Berlin and the general in Dresden and some effective lighting from Matthew Graham enhances the evocation of time and place.
I think that it is probably going to be a fraction long for some younger elements of the audience but there are enough separate episodes within the narrative for it to be broken into sections – one of the benefits, I suppose, of online theatre. However, it’s definitely going to be far more effective played through as a single piece and will give plenty of opportunities for discussion and follow on activities. Morpurgo’s own website offers guided writing worksheets based on the original text- click here. Personally, I found it an absorbing hour with plenty to admire in the way the production played out and I’m already anticipating the opening of Private Peaceful in two week’s time to continue The Barn’s undoubted success rate.
Production photos by Farrows Creative
An Elephant In The Garden from The Barn Theatre’s website – click here
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