As we queued to be let into the Underbelly’s Dairy Room venue, a boy behind me observed grumpily of his fellow queuers, ‘This show is for children.’ His father corrected him: ‘It’s for everyone.’ But Simon Reade’s adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s World War II story An Elephant in the Garden falls into that dreaded children’s theatre no man’s land, and in being for everyone, comes out being for no one at all.
The story of teenage Elizabeth – who flees the Dresden firebombing with her mother and an elephant and must set off on a journey across Germany to safety – did not remotely hold the attention of the children sitting in my immediate vicinity, whose ages ranged from about five to about 10. The former is absolutely too young for this play; a one-woman story, it relies on (often very complex) verbal storytelling, and offers little in the way of visuals or guidance for the very young. And even I found my attention wandering in moments near the middle, when Reade fails to draw the through-line of the picaresque adventure quite taut enough to sustain momentum.
That said, Alison Reid is a splendid and charismatic performer. Her sprightly switching from character to character is clear and conjures the world of characters fully—so fully, in fact, I started to wish they were really there. Elizabeth is a frustratingly passive and static protagonist. If she were played by an actual sixteen-year-old girl, the story might live more happily as a show for young people, but as comfortably as Reid inhabits Elizabeth, it’s inevitably with the air of an adult recalling her youth rather than a story told through the eyes of a teenager. This distancing, emphasized by a framing device, cuts off a key potential point of entry for young audiences.
Elements of Reade’s slightly jumbled script are absolutely lovely: the way war pervades everything, forcing unexpected decisions and contingency plans—like what you’ll do with zoo animals during an air raid. But the titular elephant, whimsical as it is, feels poorly integrated. Perhaps it’s just a lack of imagination, but I wished there were a physical emblem of her presence, rather than just Reid’s very good pantomiming. Perhaps Reade is uncertain about what she is supposed to do or mean—I definitely still am.
I’m also uncertain about what to make of a feel-good World War II story, for children or anyone. I don’t know if it’s Reade or Morpurgo who steers into the thorny thicket of blame and violence—Elizabeth often asks why the Allies hate them, why they’re being bombed and attacked, and her mother provides a range of uncertain answers—but whoever it is doesn’t steer successfully through. Perhaps it’s because I’m Jewish, but the failure for anyone to ever suggest to Elizabeth that the Allies hate the Germans because of all that genocide feels like a misstep. That’s not to say the horror of the firebombing of Dresden and the death of civilians there was justified—rather, it provides a complicated—and thus more interesting—and thus more truthful—answer to Elizabeth’s question. Maybe both sides are wrong. Maybe one side was more wrong than the other. But the Germany that Elizabeth and her companions encounter is filled with good people who just want to do their best by others; even those who support the Nazis before the war come through it having learned better. The tidiness left a sour taste in my mouth.
The Elephant in the Garden is on at Underbelly until 27th August. More info here.