Few plays depict grief without being either bleak or trivial; fewer succeed through a screen. Elephant Talk Theatre’s Finding Percy Erebus manages to do both, mixing myth and imagination to guide us through Phoebe’s (Catherine Manwaring) struggle with accepting her best friend’s death. Having been told that “Percy is gone”, she sets out to find him and travels deep into a strange world.
On her journey, Phoebe meets various bizarre creatures and must battle to understand them—in the ‘real world’, these beings are the well-meaning adults speaking in riddles to avoid mention of death. As a child, Phoebe interprets these euphemisms literally, and so follows her feet and listens to her heart in an attempt to find her ‘lost’ friend. The audience join Phoebe in her inability to comprehend the sphynx and other creatures, and so we understand the confusion created by dancing in circles around death.
Susannah MacDonald’s dark lighting perfectly complements designer Emily Harwood’s minimal staging; the cast utilise their small space to utterly convince us that this darkness is simultaneously both infinite and oppressively cramped. One benefit of online performances is the camera; its skillful use allows props to appear from nowhere. Similarly, most character entrances are slick and subtle, surprising the audience as much as Phoebe.
Manwaring’s portrayal of Phoebe may be over-exaggerated at times, which occasionally disrupts the scenes, but it could be read as the child attempting to mask her upset. Her best moments come when the dialogue is too fast-paced to add extra childish mannerisms. This may have been a more minor issue had the sound been more accurate—child actors are used to voice Percy and Phoebe, and this was mistimed for almost the entirety of the play. This is not to say that the voices are ineffective—they are far more realistic than any adult attempting to impersonate a child’s voice.
However, these issues are forgotten during the play’s most humorous moments—we meet a multi-limbed doctor, a jazz-singing crab—and the fantastically colourful costumes bring some much-needed light into Phoebe’s sad subconscious.
The most enjoyable performer to watch was Amelia Mehra: her versatility across different roles and the excellent characterisation within her voice make her stand out against the rest of this talented cast. Mehra lifts the energy in each of her scenes, and is almost unrecognisable as she transitions from the fairy godmother-like Oracle to a crossword fanatic.
Finding Percy Erebus is engaging for children and adults alike, and provides a poignant sob for any audience member old enough to understand. This innovative and imaginative play overcomes its technical hiccups through sheer force of emotion, and is well worth watching.
Words by Georgia Douglas.
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