Set in 1945, An Elephant in the Garden follows Lizzie, her mother, and an elephant named Marlene as they flee the Allied fire-bombing of their home in Germany. Escaping from the Allies advancing from the West, and the Russians advancing from the East, the three meet a host of people who help them on their way to safety. The streamed show is directed by Simon Reade, and is the first in the Barn Theatre’s Michael Morpurgo Stream Season.
Despite being filled with a wealth of characters, An Elephant in the Garden is performed by a sole actress. Alison Reid plays Lizzie, who in turn plays her mother, a Canadian navigator, and an elephant to tell her story. Reid moves across the stage as an animated storyteller, with her older Lizzie slipping between characters in the story without warning. There is a marked difference between when she is narrating as older Lizzie and speaking as younger Lizzie: young Lizzie is filled with youthful hope for the future, while also clearly feeling the frustrations of an ongoing war, and older Lizzie tells the story with excitement, visibly happy to be sharing the story that changed her life.
Reid’s true skill is displayed when she takes on the voices of the other characters within Lizzie’s story. She effortlessly slips between accents and mannerisms, often playing multiple characters in one scene. At one point, she plays at least five characters at once, flipping between German accents and Canadian accents without missing a beat. At another, Reid passes herself a compass, taking it out of her own pocket as one character and receiving it in her other hand as someone completely different. Although it is obvious that Reid is on stage by herself, as an audience member you’re charmed by her commitment to the interactions between the characters.
Speech in theatre is so often strengthened beyond words by what you see. The lighting in this show creates complexity on an otherwise minimal stage. Designed by Matthew Graham, the production uses light to create its setting, rather than relying on big set pieces to conjure images of a burning city, dark barns, and a duchess’s packed house. The lighting supports every word that Reid speaks: if her character tells us that night falls, the lights slowly dim, engulfing the lone actress in deep, blue light echoing that of a dark night in the countryside. One of my favourite moments of the show is thanks to Graham’s lighting. Lizzie and her mother stumble upon a barn and peer inside – it’s dark. The stage represents this, covered in dappled half-light, until Lizzie announces that she and her mother flung open the barn doors to let the morning light in and the stage is bathed in bright gold. The lighting design strengthens An Elephant in the Garden by not overpowering the words masterfully acted by Reid, but by crafting environments for them to thrive.
Lizzie’s story pans out beautifully on the stage as a one woman show, and is a reminder of the effects that the Allied powers had on the citizens of Germany, who were not all supportive of their tyrannical leader. The constant presence of Marlene throughout the show demonstrates Lizzie and her mother’s will to push forward – always there, and always noticed. The production is wonderful viewing and, having been filmed during the third lockdown, is a glorious example of how theatre can persevere in spite of current barriers.
An Elephant in the Garden is available to stream on the Barn Theatre’s website until the 18 April 2021.
Words by Robbie Nichols.
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