Theatre

‘Elephant’ review – Anoushka Lucas makes you think differently about pianos in visionary debut

★★★★

Oklahoma! and Chiaroscuro star Anoushka Lucas has the audience in the palm of her hands in Elephant – and that’s important. After all, she begins her debut play with a piano lesson of sorts, telling us to “curve your hand” when playing “as though something precious is right under your palm”. That requires delicacy, then, and Lucas’ meticulous monologue is precise, considered and beautifully interconnected.

Lucas plays Lylah, alternating between the excitable child who gets a piano in 1996 and discovers big questions around racial and classist prejudice, and a modern day adult who finds love in multi-talented fellow musician Leo. The transitions, like the direction from Jess Edwards and Lucas’ delivery, are free-flowing and smooth. The short sentences and stiff piano notes of childhood soon become flourishing arpeggios and mesmerising analogies. Lucas’ comedic timing is immaculate, drawing us in with detailed descriptions before catching us off-guard with a line from Lylah’s passionate parents. Contrastingly, she has us laughing at the ridiculousness of literal playground insults, before stunning us into silence when a jab aimed at her is rooted in racism. The whole production moves with an astonishing, captivating rhythm, before coming perfectly full circle in its conclusion, back to the 88 keys on the keyboard.

And Lucas hits every single note. The musical numbers in the show carry aching vulnerability against the mightiest of chords as she processes the emotions of the story through song. They are lively, experimental and encompassed by the most enchanting of vocals. So much of the 70-minute production feels fascinatingly transcendental, and it’s powerful listening. Fitting, then, as Lyla really likes to be listened to.

Elephant’s ethereal nature is helped by the many metaphors, a lot of them stemming from the piano in the corner of the stage, next to a pulsating light which hums when a single note is struck. She doesn’t just sit next to the instrument and play it, but moves under the keys, sits on the top of it, almost as if they are one of the same. The connection which makes it so is a cultural one, as Lyla explains the cruel process by which elephant tusks end up in pianos – both in terms of the harm caused to animals, but how the trade behind it is steeped in the oppression of racialised people.

A simple prop is the source of smart symbolism, about how the black keys have to ‘fit in the gaps’ of the white, about how all the mechanics connect together like parts of one’s personality, like the collective listening experience. The elephant in the room is a piano, and much, much more.

Elephant is now playing at the Bush Theatre until 12 November.

Relaxed, captioned and audio described performances will take place on 29 October, 2 November and 9 November respectively.


Production Images: Henri T.

Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘Elephant’ for free in exchange for a review of the performance as a member of the press. I did not receive payment for this article and all opinions stated above are honest and my own.

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