‘Based on a true story’ is a phrase that leaves a wide scope for interpretation, and it’s telling that it’s not used in the programme for Zeraffa Giraffa, which is, in a nutshell, the story of a giraffe gifted by Muhammad Ali of Egypt (1769-1849) to King Charles X of France (1757-1836). This particular adaptation being a children’s story, the narrative doesn’t explore the politics behind the Ottoman Empire’s role in the Greek War of Independence of 1821-1829. Very briefly: giraffes (plural, another was sent to Britain’s King George IV (1762-1830) and a third to King Francis I of Austria (1768-1835)) were diplomatic presents from the Ottoman Empire to try to curry favour from the West. It is possible these days to see the giraffe, stuffed and on display in the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle de La Rochelle. I’m sure you don’t need the translation, but here it is anyway: the Natural History Museum of La Rochelle.
This play, then, is an adaptation of an adaptation: the original story was turned into a children’s book, written by Dianne Hofmeyr and illustrated by Jane Ray, both of whom attended the press performance. Having spoken to them after the show – they were signing copies of their book for members of the audience – they were very much impressed with what they saw, and thought the production to be creative and inventive.
The audience is taken on a journey about a journey. The very best vantage points in the Little Angel Theatre are rightly reserved for small children, so it was only when one of them loudly pointed out, in the way in which small children not yet fully versed in the art of subtlety tend to point things out, that there were little toy giraffes on stage before the show started. Such attentive observations continued throughout the performance. I won’t list them, partly because my powers of recollection aren’t as good as theirs, and partly because it would give too much away. But the very fact they were being made is indicative of the level of interest the younger members of the audience had for this production. Nobody yelled about wanting to go home, nobody wanted to wait in the car, and as far I could deduce, nobody needed to use the toilet ‘Right Now’.
Questions I had about the storyline, having deliberately set to one side what I had read about Zeraffa beforehand in order to evaluate the production on its own merits, were answered soon enough. It’s not the largest of stages, so it’s not quite a full-sized giraffe presented by Atir (Ashton Owen), Zeraffa’s keeper, to King Charles (André Refig). Completing the trio of performers is Nadia Shash, who plays Ms Stravaganza, an inventor, as well as Princess Louise, daughter of King Charles.
There’s some subtle humour thrown in the dialogue, and some interesting insights for all ages to ponder on with regards to resourcefulness and the values of loyalty and mutual respect. There’s no escaping an immigration element in this story; there’s even a song in a foreign language. Some actor-musicianship adds yet another dimension to an already multi-layered production. All things considered, it’s a show with a strong element of good old-fashioned storytelling. Excellent family viewing.
Review by Chris Omaweng
A young giraffe is sent as a gift from the Pasha of Egypt to the King of France, but Paris is very far away… Zeraffa Giraffa is an emotionally engaging tale that explores what it is like to be different. Inspired by the remarkable true story of a real giraffe called Zeraffa, and her epic journey from the plains of Ethiopia to the Jardin de Plantes in France.
Directed by Elgiva Field and based on the picture book by Dianne Hofmeyr and illustrated by Jane Ray. Published by Quarto Publishing PLC. A Co-production by Omnibus Theatre and Little Angel Theatre.
Writer: Sabrina Mahfouz
Director: Elgiva Field
Producer: Felicity Paterson
Puppetry Director: Matthew Hutchinson
Designer: Ingrid Hu
Composer: Candida Caldicot
Little Angel Theatre
14 Dagmar Passage, Off Cross Street, London, N1 2DN
until 4th November 2017
Omnibus Theatre, 1 Northside, Clapham Common, London, SW4 0QW
from 25th November to 17th December 2017.