The Royal Shakespeare Theatre is finally back open for business after its COVID-enforced closure, and what a way to make its return. The first show back, following on from their outdoor summer run of The Comedy of Errors, is the RSC’s regular new family musical: an adaptation of Kate DiCamillo’s The Magician’s Elephant. My first time back in Stratford-upon-Avon since February 2019, and roughly three years since I’d last stepped foot in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre – and after seeing some rehearsal footage of this new show, I was excited to see what this had turned into. (Beware – possible hint at a spoiler.)
Nothing ever happens in Baltese. Now that the war is over, people are free to just go about their lives, stuck in mundane routines and doing their best to make ends meet. The last thing they’d expect is for magic to come to town – but when a magician (apparently accidentally) conjures an elephant in the middle of a performance, the lives of all the town’s inhabitants will change forever. As the police strive to find a crime with which to charge the elephant, orphan Peter Duchene receives a curious missive from a mysterious fortune teller: “follow the elephant” and he will uncover a secret about his stillborn sister. Though he faces obstacles in the form of his guardian Vilna Lutz (a soldier who fought alongside Peter’s father), the Police Chief, and Countess Quintet’s bid for popularity & adoration, he is determined to find a way.
The show is mostly sung-through, but allows for sections of real dialogue when some things really need to be spoken; I’m glad that this choice was made, as this combination works much better than ‘sing-song’ conversations which some musicals adopt – it has a more natural feel to it and allows the show to flow better, whilst retaining the fantastical element of song. Another good idea was to include a narrator. Not only is she an additional magical presence in a show filled with (& all about) magic, but it’s also a great way to explain aspects of the plot and tie all the various strands together in a seamless fashion. The only tiny thing that doesn’t quite work for me is that we don’t hear Peter say his sister’s name until the very end – I feel that the audience should be officially in on the secret before everyone in Baltese finds out, à la Twelfth Night. If it works for Shakespeare…
Aside from that, the feeling of being trapped in the mundane whilst possibly still being traumatised from a catastrophic event rings very true, and allows us to better understand the people of Baltese. The burst of light, fun & unpredictability that the magician and elephant bring is also familiar, as populations around the world attempt to get back out and enjoy themselves again. The magic & illusions (designed by John Bulleid) are wonderful, as there are moments where it all integrates with the flow of the show, as well as really spectacular feats. Much of this surrounds the elephant and her appearance & disappearance. The puppet (designed by Mervyn Millar & Tracy Waller) is absolutely phenomenal – even from a little bit of a distance I completely understood what the writers meant about feeling emotional looking into her eyes, as she just seems so alive and so sad. A lot of credit should also go to puppeteers Zoe Halliday, Wela Mbusi & Suzanne Nixon for their part in breathing life into the elephant. Also very impressive are the highly detailed projection designs (Douglas O’Connell), which add an extra touch of magic and plausibility to proceedings.
The cast, too, bring their own magic in the form of an array of memorable & touching performances. Forbes Masson draws expertly on his comic abilities as a man who has clearly failed upwards to become Police Chief – no prizes for guessing the political party & leader this character reminds me of! There are unmistakable Cruella and Queen of Hearts vibes as far as Countess Quintet is concerned, with her coiffured red hair and selection of black & white outfits – and Summer Strallen also brings a touch of Miranda Richardson’s Queenie to her performance, as the Countess schemes to make herself the centre of attention in Baltese once again. Marc Antolin is wonderful as police officer Leo Matienne; his solo song & dance that comes as Leo’s hope begins to fire is so incongruous with his profession, but makes him all the more endearing for it.
Jack Wolfe (Peter) and Miriam Nyarko (Adele) are exceptional talents. The story follows Peter’s quest to find and follow the elephant, so naturally he is onstage for the majority of the show; Wolfe shoulders this responsibility with ease, instantly engaging the audience with Peter’s character and captivating them throughout with his songs. Nyarko injects the show with a different energy when she makes her appearance slightly later on, keeping Adele’s adventurous spirit intact as she attempts to escape the dull reality in which she finds herself.
Whether or not this is your first show back since theatres reopened, it is guaranteed to sprinkle some much-needed magic as you take your seats in Baltese. It’s hopeful & joyful without being sickly sweet, and also surprisingly emotional in places – an ideal bit of escapism from a world that’s still rather troubled.
My verdict? A brand new musical that is guaranteed to sprinkle some much-needed magic, as you gaze in wonder at the elephant – Jack Wolfe & Miriam Nyarko are exceptional.
The Magician’s Elephant runs at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre (RSC) until 1 January 2022. Tickets are available online or from the box office.