I do wonder whether the German accent was strictly necessary. Elizabeth (Alison Reid), or Lizzie, as she was invariably called, is excited at the news of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and sets about reminiscing about the Second World War. A resident of Dresden, she just about managed to escape with her mother: 13 February 1945 marked her sixteenth birthday, which seems more than a little contrived for anyone who knows the significance of that date – the beginning of a sustained aerial bombing attack by the British Royal Air Force and United States Army Air Forces on the city of Dresden that went on for three days.
It’s called An Elephant in the Garden for a reason, and it takes a significant amount of suspension of disbelief to come to terms with the idea that a literal elephant was taken from Dresden Zoo by Elizabeth’s mother, undetected (even if she was an employee there and presumably knew how to bypass security), taken home, and then escorted out of the city altogether as mother and daughter sought to escape the air raids. Then again, this was World War Two, and people would have had more important things to think about than to be particularly bothered about an animal on the street.
This production largely relies on the art of storytelling, or, at the risk of being unkind, there’s a lot of exposition. While there are some sound effects, much is commendably left to the imagination. There are no projected images or visual aids. Night is depicted by a subtle change in stage lighting. The show’s conclusion is, perhaps, somewhat predictable, though the death and destruction of wartime is contrasted well with a positive memory of happier times, which at least sends the audience away on a relatively optimistic note.
Reid does very well to voice every character – the uncle, the aunt, soldiers on both sides, and so on. It is remarkably nuanced for a children’s story: what technically constitutes lying, for instance, is portrayed here as a necessary act for the greater good. The production is sometimes unsubtle in its references to modern-day situations, not quite mentioning the Trump Administration in its assessment of how walls can be divisive, and not explicitly drawing parallels between people fleeing their homes in the Second World War and far more recent refugee crises. I can’t help thinking, however, that it is rather a lot for the show’s target audience to absorb in one go. That said, there is much food for thought in this charming and steadily-paced production.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Set against the backdrop of the 1945 Dresden bombings, the production follows Lizzie, her mother – and an elephant from the zoo known as Marlene as they flee the Allied fire-bombing in the endgame of the Second World War.
The play, based on the book by Michael Morpurgo, is adapted and directed by Simon Reade and performed by Alison Reid. The production features design by Max Johns, lighting design by Matthew Graham, costumes by Elizabeth De-Tisi, sound design by Jason Barnes, radio voices by Chris Bianchi, juggling by Rod Laver with Alex Tabrizi as director of photography.
Produced by Poonamallee Productions in collaboration with The Barn Theatre and association with Exeter Northcott Theatre
An Elephant in the Garden, which was filmed at the Barn Theatre during the third national lockdown under strict guidelines, will be available internationally from 2-18 April and marks the first of two Michael Morpurgo productions being revived for the digital stage by the Barn Theatre as part of their Michael Morpurgo Stream Season.
1945. Dresden, Germany. Lizzie, her mother – and an elephant from the zoo, flee the Allied fire-bombing in the end-game of the Second World War. Escaping the Allies’ advance from the West – and also the advancing Russian armies from the East – this extraordinary trio of refugees meet: a downed RAF officer, cowering in a barn; a homeless school choir on the run and their Countess saviours, harbouring them from the Nazis; and the mechanised American cavalry, appearing over the horizon.
It is Lizzie’s story – but Marlene, the elephant, is the heroine. Plodding, obdurate opportunistic, load-bearing, indestructible, cheering – Marlene embodies the stubbornness of the human will and how it will do everything to survive.