It’s a safe bet that 90s club group Deee-Lite could never have predicted that their hit single ‘Groove is in the Heart’ would end up being danced to by riotous phantom elephants in a kids’ show on London’s South Bank. But if they had, you’d hope they’d be pleased. It’s a high point in a brilliantly inventive, anarchically fun piece of theatre that reminds you how much better children are than grown-ups.
The appearance of the all-dancing (and ever-multiplying) floppy-eared spooks is the point at which Audrey Brisson’s Girl begins to wish the Elephantom who’s come to stay would just go away. Dropping in after being heralded by off-stage spectral trumpeting, what begins as a fun companion for a lonely child eventually throws her life into chaos. So, accompanied by her intrepid grandmother (played with Sylvain Chome-style cartoon perfection by Julia Innocenti), she does what any little girl in such a situation would do: seek out an exorcist.
Skilfully adapted for the stage by Ben Power from Ross Collins’ popular children’s book, one of the joys of this production – which plays like a U-rated Beetlejuice – is its refusal to pander to an adult perspective on storytelling. There are no neat endings or reassuringly cathartic reconciliations: the giggling Elephantom, when it finally goes, is still a gleefully irredeemable pain in the backside. Like the best kids’ stories – and I’m thinking in particular of Judith Kerr’s The Tiger Who Came to Tea – this show taps wonderfully into something that kids, the ultimate realists, accept and we forget. Sometimes, weird shit just happens.
And the adult world isn’t ignored. Co-directors Finn Caldwell’s and Toby Olié’s ingeniously choreographed staging paints a hilariously well-observed portrait of the circus of grown-up life, as viewed from the vantage point of the bewildered Girl. Dialogue-free, it’s an endless cycle of teeth-cleaning, tea-pouring, bag-packing, work-going and sofa-slumping. Laura Cubitt and Tim Lewis are excellent as Mum and Dad, inhabiting the roles of neurotically over-achieving professional parents with the vibrancy of skilled mime artists.
The physical comedy that ensues from the Elephantom’s unstoppable disruption of this precision-ordered daily routine is laugh-out-loud funny – a clownish farce of great visual gags and a few jokes unobtrusively chucked in for the adults in the audience. Sometimes it’s as simple as hitting on the perfect facial expression for when Dad mistakes the smell of a ghostly elephant poo for Mum’s eau de toilette. Immensely fun and beautifully silly, it’s also a great comeuppance for two people who have managed to completely ignore their daughter and the expression of any genuine affection in their perfect parental master plan.
Unsurprisingly for a production team with strong ties to War Horse, the Elephantom itself is a masterpiece of puppetry, first inflating from the Girl’s bed like a picture-book coming to life. Designer Toby Olié’s giant, helium-filled creation careens around The Shed, bouncing off delighted children (and some surprised adults) as it hoovers up food, steals bed sheets and generally causes complete chaos. Operated by various cast members, it’s irrepressible and unnerving – an uncanny figment of the imagination, untethered by sense or reason, let loose from a dream.
The only time that the pace falters is in the scenes involving David Emmings’ Mr Spectral, who the Girl visits to find a way to get rid of the Elephantom. These are over-long and – importantly in a show with no dialogue – not always easy to follow. The parcels which bark like dogs and buzz like bees have a pleasing Hogwarts quality, but they lack the clarity of storytelling that is one of the hallmarks of the rest of the production. The colourfully exaggerated reality of Samuel Wyer’s stage design – so vivid elsewhere – briefly loses its focus as technical ingenuity steals a lead.
But this is a slight dip in an otherwise fantastically enjoyable hour, which displays more inventiveness and has more to say about family life than many ‘serious’ plays twice its length. Brisson excels as the Girl – touching in scenes where her character attempts to emulate her oblivious parents and wonderfully determined as she tackles the Elephantom. Here, the kids are most definitely all right.