THE ELEPHANT SONG – The Park Theatre, London

23 January 2023


Nicolas Billon’s play found success in his native Canada and has since been filmed and become, curiously, a surprise and long-running hit in South Korea. This is the UK premiere production.

A doctor in a mental health establishment has gone missing; the last person to see him was troubled inmate, Michael. The Director of the institution, Dr Greenberg, has to investigate. Such is the simple plotline of a play which covers a multitude of subject matters in its running time of just 70 minutes.

The resident nurse, Miss Peterson, warns Greenberg that Michael will play games – that this won’t be an easy ride. And so it proves. The resultant games of cat and mouse, one-upmanship and snakes and ladders is a mesmerising contest. Who will outwit who, and how? Billon creates a dynamic between these two characters which never settles and just as you think one has the upper hand, they are knocked down again. The combatants circle each other – with the occasional assistance of Miss Peterson who is almost like a referee – but will there be a conclusion?

The weapons of choice are words and memories. As insults are traded, the whip of Michael’s tongue grows stronger and only begins to wilt as Greenberg slowly uncovers the layers which protect the patient – reaching to the very heart of the issues which have sent him to the institution in the first place; an extremely troubled upbringing, an uncaring Mother and a Stepfather who exposed him to the brutal killing of an elephant when he was very young. What child wouldn’t be affected? The resultant obsession with elephants offers Michael an outlet, a friendship, an alter-ego even.

Along the way discussions include, infidelity, homosexuality, child abuse, medical negligence….. but there is also sharp wit and gallows humour offering some light relief. But is there method in the ‘madness’? Is it all one elaborate plan in action ? It is a play packed with questions even if some of the answers are left hanging.

OnBook Theatre’s production at The Park Theatre, London is carefully crafted in every detail; in the extremely intimate environment of this 90-seater space, the audience surround the action on three sides creating real atmosphere. Jason Moore directs with a fluid hand and ensures the pace of the joust keeps the audience hooked on every word. Miss Peterson describes Michael as being ‘dangerous’ – you never know what he will come out with next – and Moore crafts the play accordingly – you are not sure where the next twist will come. This is a director who brings the very best out of his material and his performers for the benefit of the audience.

The set is beautifully realised – an office with a desk and some easy chairs, but with so much detail; the colours of the carpet tiles – some are elephant grey for instance. Elephants also discreetly feature on the wall; a Rorshach picture may or may not be of the same; authentic certificates are also to be seen …. Ian Nicholas takes such care in his design work and here it pays off so very well.

Lighting and sound by Eliott Sheppard are equally crisp and creative; the soundscape at the beginning and end being particularly effective.

Jon Osbalderston is suitably stern as Greenberg; humourless in the main; this is an annoying aside from his normal work and he wants to get home for Christmas – or does he? Though a little hesitant at times, the actor displays the frustrations he is feeling as he finds he is not getting his own way.

Louise Faulkner as Miss Peterson provides the contrast as someone who understands the patient rather more than Greenberg and cares for him more too. A sympathetic character, gently played with something of a world weariness; by the end you know who you are feeling for.

The character of Michael is so complex. Where do you start and how do you portray this young man, who has been so scarred in his formative years, without sending it into parody and sending it up? To answer that question, then you will need to see this production, for Gwithian Evans offers the audience a multi-layered, multi-faceted performance which is so full of depth that it is difficult to take your eyes off him. Jason Moore has ensured that the actor keeps the character completely believable; there’s no overplaying of any aspect; whether it be feeling sorry for himself; playing with his toy elephant, Anthony,  or verbalising his false theories about the missing doctor. Two moments seal his performance; the utterly devastating description of the elephant hunt and the relaying of the death of his Mother. Evans is quite brilliant and deserves all the plaudits I hope he receives.

Discussions about the play could go on for a considerable amount of time and maybe there are questions which we would all love to have seen answered; but getting an audience to think after the event and chat about it is surely what any playwright aims for. The very ending will leave you floored and maybe, with some thought, you will understand the nature of the play as a whole.

Nicolas Billon’s play is packed with wit, wisdom and questions. It is powerful, funny and moving and here it is given an excellent production with a standout central performance which should not go unnoticed.












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