The Elephant Song review – psychiatrist and patient spar in game of truth or lie

Park theatre, London
Gwithian Evans and Jon Osbaldeston star in a power struggle that keeps you guessing – but it’s not enough to get under your skin

Nicolas Billon’s 2004 play sets itself up as a psychological wrestling match between a senior psychiatrist and an inpatient at a mental health unit, believed to have vital information on a missing doctor. The police have arrived and the patient, Michael, an apparently devious 23-year-old, makes controversial claims with incriminating photographs. But what seems like an alleged sex scandal turns into something else entirely.

Under the direction of Jason Moore, the play casts doubt over both men who circle around each other like predators as they play out their power struggle and a game of truth or lie. We are played too, to some degree, though this 75-minute drama does not get under the skin and, more problematically, seems to draw the mentally ill patient as too much like a criminal, to be openly distrusted and disbelieved.

Dr Greenberg (Jon Osbaldeston) is too rude and quickly angered to be believable at first, calling this vulnerable patient “a little shit”. Yet he also becomes too quickly and gullibly drawn in once he begins to listen. Gwithian Evans acts the part of the charismatic, brilliant manipulator who can run rings around his doctors – a familiar trope but performed well. Michael’s obsession with elephants is strained and distracting but the play does reveal a bigger metaphorical meaning for this fixation, and a strong scene about elephants opens the floodgates to his traumatic early life.

There is also Miss Peterson (Louise Faulker), a psychiatric nurse and ancillary character compared to the infamous Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. She comes and goes rather too briefly, warning Dr Greenberg not to trust this patient, and is implicated in Michael’s games but not satisfyingly enough.

A new intrigue around Dr Greenberg’s wife, thrown in near the end, is left hanging and the final scene brings an abrupt twist without the emotional punch it needs. The play’s mind games as a whole are too neatly driven by plot, and come with a few too many obvious stunts, but they do raise enough tension and intrigue to draw you in and keep you guessing.


Arifa Akbar

The GuardianTramp

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