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Elephant Steps at the Arcola Theatre London | Review

Elephant Steps at the Arcola Theatre
Elephant Steps at the Arcola Theatre

It had to happen. In all my years in theatre, with the thousands of productions seen, I knew it would happen eventually. You’re aware of the great Mel Brooks film “The Producers” and the more recent follow-up musical that graced the West End Stage? The central premise is that said producers come up with a really bad show so they can write off the failure against tax liability. Or something. Well, Elephant Steps is, surely, exactly that kind of show (I jest and say with tongue firmly in cheek). With a band (or orchestra to give it its pretentious title in the programme) of ten musicians (top-notch but expensive), a cast of eight (ranging from mediocre to weak but all on Equity minimum one assumes), a director (who at least combines the roles of designer and choreographer saving a bit of cash) and the writers who, to be fair, one hopes would be far too embarrassed to accept any kind of fee for this utter nonsense; not to forget the airfares for this travelling lead balloon, imported from America for a three day run at the Arcola (though the actors mostly appear to be home-based), all of which would keep most London fringe theatres running for a year.

And then, of course, there are The Producers – Patrick Kennedy Phenomenological Theatre Company which for all the world sounds like a bona fide tax dodge even it isn’t, who, one thinks, must have pulled the wool over someone’s eyes apart from the Arcola audience which, besides some vociferous Americans, seemed resolutely un-chuffed at the experience. Patrick Kennedy is also that director/designer/choreographer: check out his uber-pretentious pen-pic in the programme.

So let’s start with the music. It’s a musical, or an operetta or, if you hail from the pretentious world of Phenomenological-land then it’s an opera – “An Occult Opera Upon Perception”. It’s what I like to describe as “Wedding Music”: something old, nothing new, mostly borrowed, makes you blue. Stanley Silverman’s score is a kind of magi-mix experience of stuff half-inched from a wide range of diverse practitioners of the art – Stockhausen, Philip Glass, Stravinsky, there’s a bit of Bach in there, cabaret-style clichés, some derivative rock riffs, and, when we get to the obligatory comedy number, then it’s an unashamed re-hash of Paul McCartney’s “When I’m Sixty-Four”. (Elephant Steps is fifty years old. “Sergeant Pepper” is fifty-one). If McCartney heard it he would undoubtedly think that if Pharrell Williams can get sued for “Blurred Lines” then he should sue as well for this abomination that is way beyond pastiche. But I imagine this will have been priced into the whole tax scam thing (I jest, of course).

Singing-wise, if you’re going to bill this as an opera then it needs the precision of an opera – sadly lacking in this piece – not sure the cast understand the demands of operatic work. Jake Stevenson as Hartman has a limited range and can only growl the bottom register notes, Tom Taplin as Doctor Worms (yeah) can’t actually find most of the notes, Jonny Depp look-a-like Joshua Lewindon as Otto, when not doing his twitchy Jack Sparrow act, can sing but doesn’t get much opportunity as he’s mainly twitching and Blair Robertson (Max) occasionally injects some gusto but mostly seems to have absolutely no idea what he is singing and why – bit like the rest of us.

The female members of the cast appear to have good voices but mostly are directed to screech and wail whilst having to deal with a whole range of cheap and nasty props including angel wings – Jessica Foden and Anna Hallas
Smith are Elephant Angels, of course, as you would expect. Elissa Churchill wears a look of bemused harassment whilst doing her best Mrs Overall impression as Scrubwoman/Ragtime Lady and Kate Baxter as Hannah does her utmost – as one who apparently required an airfare – to justify it.

The set: you may or may not recall “Laugh-in”? Here we have doors and windows that open and characters pop out just like in that ’sixties (TV) icon. And let’s not forget the lengths of string stretched over the set for no apparent reason other than, perhaps, we are being strung along.

Sound effects: an excruciating electric bell sounds loudly at intervals throughout but regrettably never for an actual interval.

The story? Man in a psychiatric hospital bed grows elephant ears. Then goes to heaven (climbs a ladder). Or not. Various people get very big hands. Oh, and there’s a liberal sprinkling of cucumbers. (I was offered one. I declined). Don’t think mentioning the cucumbers is a spoiler. But it might be.

The Occult? Well, there’s a couple of Pound-shop skeleton masks. That’s it. Not sure the writers actually understand what the Occult is. (No doubt I’ll have a spell put on me and be transported to Phenomenological-ville). Sitting through this torturous mish-mash I have to say that I was reminded of that line by Mephistopheles in Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus” who, when asked why he’s out of hell, replies “Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it.

People, no doubt, will come out of this show and opine wisely about its themes, its concept and its motivation and they will give the impression they know exactly what is going on. They won’t. Nobody will know what is exactly going on. The only person who might know is writer Richard Foreman. But I have my doubts. He wrote the piece in the sixties: not sure if he was there or not because he may well have been trekking in La-La Land or Phenomenological-realm. I’m assuming that credited big-wig producer Ben Silverman is related to composer Stanley Silverman and together they are responsible for that well-thumbed little family deductibles guide “Tax Avoidance in the Occult” (once again, I jest, of course!) But I would have thought he might have come across the invaluable handbook for producers which contains just the one line: we are an audience; we wish to be entertained. Phenomenologically speaking, Elephant Steps completely misses that target.

2 gold stars

Review by Peter Yates

The European premiere and 50th-anniversary production of American avant-garde theatre pioneers Richard Foreman and Stanley Silverman’s Elephant Steps, an occult, surrealist opera.

A multi-media rock-opera extravaganza where music, light, images, movement, graphics, films, incense, machinery, props and performers are incorporated into a spectacular mix.

If you like gangster films, rock bands, gypsy violinists, incense or The Sound Of Music then come and see Elephant Steps. Or if you prefer ragtime, silent movies, psychedelic lights or madrigals? You’ll find them in Elephant Steps too.

Critically-acclaimed avant-garde auteur Patrick Kennedy draws inspiration from the work of David Lynch, Salvador Dali and Jean Cocteau for this highly anticipated premiere of Elephant Steps.ay production of Waitress – Photographer Joan Marcus

Arcola Theatre
24 Ashwin Street, Dalston, London, E8 3DL


  • Peter Yates

    Peter has a long involvement in the theatrical world as playwright, producer, director and designer. His theatre company Random Cactus has taken many shows to the Edinburgh Fringe, the London Fringe and elsewhere and he has been associated with the Wireless Theatre Company since its inception where his short play Lie Detector can be heard: Wireless Theatre Company.

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3 thoughts on “Elephant Steps at the Arcola Theatre London | Review”

  1. I went along as someone’s plus one, with zero expectations, and have to say I rather enjoyed it… It felt like a disorienting dream – which was the point, wasn’t it? I loved the score – and the musicians were fantastic. I also thought the actors were great and had no complaints about them being ‘in tune’ – maybe I missed that nuance.

    Just been Googling about to see if there was any more info on what I saw – and found your review. Having put on fringe productions myself with zero prop and costume budgets, I’m possibly some way past having an issue with a pound shop skull. We’ve conjured up a show – Ken Campbell style – with far less. Maybe the occult part was in the original etymology/meaning, which I think I picked up from reading Alan Moore – which is ‘hidden’ rather than anything especially demonic?

    If any of the cast/crew are reading this – the section of the audience I was in seemed to enjoy it too – occasionally perplexed, maybe.

    Each to his own, though…

  2. I have to say I completely agree with this review. My main regret was that I was sitting too far from the door to be able to make a discreet enough exit. Most of the audience looked utterly bemused (I was more entertained by their expressions than the action on stage) and there was a stunned silence at the end culminating in an explosion of relief that it was over.

  3. Many critics and audiences don’t ‘get’ Foreman. His work is not about presenting “utter nonsense”, but instead using humour, playfulness and wit in pieces that refuse to come into narrative focus, whilst suggesting multiple possible meanings. Clearly, Elephant Steps wasn’t to this reviewer’s taste, but, in my view, the production was faithful to Foreman’s aesthetic and the performances were a lot stronger than the review gives them credit for.

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