The tusked star of Kate DiCamillo’s novel The Magician’s Elephant arrives, like Dumbo, from the skies. This elephant falls not into a travelling circus, but an opera house in the city of Baltese and her arrival lifts the spirits of its war-weary inhabitants. Now this musical adaptation, directed by Sarah Tipple, lands at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre to welcome back audiences for the first time since it closed last March.
The musical was programmed before the pandemic but its storyline of collective grief, recovery and reconnection chimes with our current moment. And who doesn’t love an elephant? Puppetry director Mervyn Millar and fellow designer Tracy Waller have created a beauty who, controlled by three puppeteers inside, tickles bottoms with her trunk, flaps her ears and instantly delights the half-term audience at this matinee.
The elephant’s arrival links the lives of orphan Peter, desperate to solve the mystery of his sister; Peter’s guardian, Vilna, who is training the boy to be a soldier not a dreamer; Countess Quintet, furious she’s no longer the centre of attention; and Leo, a policeman with the soul of a poet. The slight plot of the novel has had a minor tinker and, over 145 minutes, the characterisation remains as thin as much of it is in the original. The key role of Madam LaVaughn, the noblewoman crushed by the elephant, is reduced to only a few lines.
In their adaptation, Nancy Harris (book and lyrics) and Marc Teitler (music and lyrics) wisely build up three comedic roles. Forbes Masson is criminally funny as an exasperated police chief whose truncheon is filled with booze. Miriam Nyarko, triumph in the RSC’s The Boy in the Dress, is again superb as spirited orphan Adele, given much greater agency than in the novel. And playing the narrator, Amy Booth-Steel is as genial as she was dastardly in the National Theatre’s panto Dick Whittington, performing with the same glint in her eye and spring in her step, frequently winking to the audience.
There is witty rhyming in the songs, too. Guilty As Charged finds Masson desperately trying to pin a crime on the elephant and The Count Who Doesn’t Count is a lament from Countess Quintet’s overshadowed other half, who has “a title no one reads”. Jack Wolfe as Peter delivers an enchanting ballad, A Lot Like Me, but few of the melodies stay with you and the show’s liveliest sequences are dampened by a moralising, over-sentimental air that slows down the episodes in between. Even the upturning of a dung bucket isn’t as joyously anarchic as it could be. Sometimes, to paraphrase the RSC’s own Matilda, you have to be a little bit naughtier.
It’s a brave Christmas show that uses colours this cold and dark, but designer Colin Richmond’s elephantine palette of greys and ivory captures dreary Baltese days. His set’s concentric arches give us an impression of being beneath an elephant, or even inside its trunk, and as the Countess, Summer Strallen’s black-and-white gowns align her with fellow animal-hater Cruella de Vil.
Harris and Teitler raise a broad range of issues, pertinently exploring how the elephant is exploited by and divides the community, yet the overwrought messages about achieving the impossible begin to feel forgettable. But the elephant herself, heroically powered by Zoe Halliday, Wela Mbusi and Suzanne Nixon, is one to remember.
At the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, until 1 January