2022 has seen in production a goodly number of issue led shows which have relied heavily on first-hand experience to inform the writing. Many of these are solo or duologue pieces being performed as long one acters in intimate venues. In the last month alone I have seen Ruckus, a piece about coercive control, The P Word on the subject of the gay immigrant experience, Apples In Winter which tackles the ongoing effects of the death penalty on family members and, most memorably, The Poltergeist which examines a number of mental health issues. All of these have been memorably staged to ensure they are not just a lecture and all have received Offies nominations for their lead performer.
The latest to join this illustrious group is Elephant which is in the pocket sized studio at the Bush Theatre – the venue is also home to The P Word so they are currently on a bit of a roll. It is written and performed by Anoushka Lucas who plays central character Lylah at various stages in her young life and who, just for good measure, sings beautifully and plays the piano with expression and flair. Indeed, other than Lylah/Lucas herself, a piano is the only other significant element of the staging. As well as its primary purpose it is also used to climb on, lay down under and hide behind as the performer tells us her tale of mixed race heritage, systemic racism and her struggles to make it in the music business without losing her credibility or her USP. The piano also acts as a constant reminder of the cruelty inflicted on elephants in order to provide the keys which go into its makeup. In addition, the mahogany casing of the instrument also raises environmental and historical issues connected with the slave trade.
There’s a lot going on for such a short show especially as it also includes snapshots of life in a multi-race household without stable financial security, tales of life at an Anglo-French school and the progress of a relationship with a fellow musician. It is this last strand which in the end carries the most weight as Lylah visits his upper middle class family and is struck by the realisation that the effects of Empire are all around her and certainly embedded in the family psyche. In a blistering late monologue, she directly addresses the “elephant in the room”. She soundly castigates the complacent family and releases the pent up emotions which have developed throughout the rest of her life. Suddenly all the previous anecdotes, presented as a time hopping jumble of memories, make complete sense. It’s one of those plays where you can really only understand what has been happening by reconsidering the whole piece in the light of that denouement.
The various scenes are punctuated by some exceptionally well performed musical numbers which resonated in the intimate space and added to the overall mood. These are definitely not bolt-ons but an integral part of the writing and they are clearly informed by the protagonist’s life experiences. Lucas clearly has a number of strings to her bow and if she can retain her individuality (one of the key themes of the play itself) I’m sure hers is a name of which we will be hearing more. At the time of writing the show has sold out (the venue holds just 60 audience members); only returns are available but it’s definitely worth seeing if you can get hold of one.