Ignored by her parents, a young girl pines after some fun, but she gets more than she bargained for when an elephant (or elephantom, to be precise) comes to stay. Although starting out as giggling fun, the invisible elephantom soon becomes a little too much to handle. Causing chaos at breakfast, and taking up far too much of the bed, the poor girl doesn’t know what to do. How do you get rid of a phantom elephant?
The Elephantom by Ross Collins, adapted by Ben Power for the National Theatre’s The Shed, is a fun and joyous production for children. Directors Finn Caldwell and Toby Olié have tackled the question of how to bring a giant elephantom onto the stage by using an inflatable puppet that bobs and bounces its way around, to squeals of delight from children and adults alike. There really is nothing better than having an inflatable elephant’s bum squashing itself onto audience members as it tries to navigate The Shed’s intimate space.
Having said that, while The Elephantom delivers some raucous laughter, it struggles to find a balance that sits comfortably with the child audiences. It’s a rich production, with levels of detail and nuance that had me nodding with approval, such as the excellently timed morning rituals the cast undertake in dressing, brushing of teeth and breakfast. Delivered in rhythmic precision, this dance is captivating, but for the smaller audiences it just doesn’t sit. This is partly to do with the performance space of the NT Shed, with audiences on three sides. There’s always going to be things missed, which becomes increasingly apparent and frustrating once the large-scale puppets start inflating. There’s also a distinctive rhythmic issue in how the production plays out: it just never feels like it finds its feet long enough to astound us, which is a shame when there are moments of sheer joy that you can’t help but beam at.
The puppets, designed by Olié, are brilliantly fun. They emerge from every part of the space and fill it like hot air balloons, only with much more fun. The Elephantom certainly hits the mark on the puppetry front, especially with the brilliant manipulation from the cast against the beautifully captivating music played live by Adam Pleeth, a one-man band. The highlight of the show has to be when chaos descends, as a party of elephantoms takes over the girl’s house and causing quite a stir. Who knew that actors dressed in elephant suits could be so damn funny?
Whilst there are moments of delight, ultimately this is a show that feels too dense, even in the silent characters. The space restrictions of the NT Shed doesn’t do well for the work, and while it’s being billed as a show for ages four plus, I’d question how much the first half keeps the younger audience engaged. The cast, led by Audrey Brisson as Girl (with delicate and wonderfully playful acting), do well with the tight spacing and demanding puppetry interaction, as well as the synchronised movement. When The Elephantom works, it really shows the magical potential of puppetry and theatre: it’s just a shame that the piece takes so long to thrill, and then struggles to sustain it.
The Elephantom is playing at the National Theatre until 11 January 2014. For more information and tickets, see the National Theatre website.