Have you ever noted the similarity between the sound of an elephants’ trumpet and an air raid siren?
In this play about togetherness in a world that is splitting apart, author Michael Morpurgo and adaptor Simon Reade personalise history. In a similar way to how All Quiet on the Western Front alters your idea of the enemy, An Elephant In The Garden makes you forget nationality and see everyone as equal in the catastrophic setting of the Second World War.
Despite the dark subject matter, all of Morpurgo’s stories have an unfailing charm and Simon Reade’s adaptation of Morpurgo’s children’s novel is no exception. Alison Reid does excellently to keep us with her as she leads us on the extraordinary journey of a little girl and a gentle giant. Seventy minutes is a long time for a one woman show to keep fidgety children attentive, but as soon as ‘Nazi storm troopers’ are mentioned, the kids are hooked.
Reid articulates clearly and pieces together the narrative without ever becoming patronising. She presents to us a young German girl, Elizabeth, who is forced to leave Dresden with her mother when the RAF bomb their city. As Elizabeth and her mother traipse across Germany, they collect waifs and strays, including a stolen elephant. Reid plays each character of their galumphing group of outcasts with boundless energy and cheekiness. Her words are illustrated by Matthew Graham’s lighting design as we are transported from crisp snow to creaky attic, our refugees never quite settling in one location.
Though the piece holds our attention, our intense concentration is sometimes part of an attempt to understand. There is so much plot squeezed in that it becomes difficult to immerse in one scene before being pulled to the next. At times the accents could be clearer and the pace could vary more. But it is easy to forgive these faults as soon as Reid portrays the swaying elephant or plays an injection of Bach or Dietrich, making us want to get up onstage and dance with her.
Though educating us about this particular period of history, there is a more immediate world event that this endearing story teaches us about. This little girl, her mother and the elephant are all refugees, fleeing their home for fear of wars and violence. When Elizabeth and her gang are desperately hungry after a few days walking, it is hard not to think of those going with nothing for weeks in camps and boats, and in the backs of vans across the world. We know the outcome of the Second World War. The end of the ongoing refugee crisis seems less certain.
It might be a children’s show, but An Elephant in the Garden makes us see these refugees as individuals. It makes us sympathise, laugh and fall in love with them. Perhaps Reade’s adaptation of Morpurgo’s book is a sign that we should all be trying to do the same.
An Elephant in the Garden does not shy away from the pain of war, the fear of the bombs or the loss people were forced to face, ‘That’s what these bombs do, they make hate.’ But it is overwhelmingly positive, celebrating love in the face of hate, and showing how we have to juggle the good and bad parts of life that are thrown our way. This small, one woman play manages to humanise the refugee crisis, educate young children about the Second World War and convince us, just a little, to believe in love at first sight. This play is a gentle giant itself, it is sweet and innocent, but has an impact on an enormous scale.
Next time you hear a siren, watch out for a lost elephant swaying its way down the road.
An Elephant in the Garden is on until 13th February 2016. Click here for more details.