Photo credit: Exeter Northcott Theatre
Talking to children about war is hard. Facts are the easy bit – most primary school children can tell you all about wars. They know when they happened, who fought who, names and dates and numbers. To convey the human side of war to children, to demonstrate things like suffering and hardship, and convey the stories of individuals without making war seem distant and unreal, is more of a challenge. This is something that Michael Morpurgo specialises in. His novels Private Peaceful and Warhorse are famous with children and adults worldwide, capturing some of the grittiest aspects of the great wars yet making it so accessible to children through his characteristic charming way of writing. Their success has led to extremely successful film and theatre adaptations, and the latest of his novels to receive this treatment is An Elephant in the Garden.
Simon Reade has transformed the novel into a gripping one-woman show, exuberantly and convincingly performed by Exeter University alumni Alison Reid. Set in Dresden, Germany, during World War Two, the story is told from the perspective of a young girl called Lizzie with an affection for juggling, who is travelling west, abandoning her bombed hometown of Dresden along with her mother and a two tonne elephant named Marlene.
With just a few simple props and some clever stage design, Reid paints the action, differentiating each role with convincing – though occasionally wavering –accents and sweat-inducing animation – including some impressive juggling routines. Reid dances around the stage, and her energy is key to the performance. Keeping an audience attentive and interested with only one performer and no action for a 75 minute production is a challenge; the play is reliant on Reid to describe and perform everything. But Reid substitutes action for dialogue and narrative impressively, jumping between characters effortlessly. I almost felt like I could have watched the play with my eyes closed and still know exactly what was going on.
However, the ending is a bit of a disappointment, simply due to the timing falling apart. The conclusion is too abrupt with the story falling from climax to end in a couple of minutes. The ending wasn’t entirely dissatisfying, but I would have liked to have seen an extra few minutes dedicated to rounding things off.
All in all, the play finds a good balance between being an upbeat, enjoyable performance and presenting some darker themes. Simon Reade has taken what makes Morpurgo’s writing so great and poured it straight into theatre.