Elephant at Bush Theatre
Premiering at the Bush Theatre in 2022, Anoushka Lucas’s one-woman show was applauded by critics and audiences alike. So much so that it now returns to the west London venue a year after its original run. Last time around it was staged in the compact studio theatre that offered a suitably small space in which to blend the half-gig, half-melodic monologue. For its revival, the production is transferred to the main space and extended by around 20 minutes.
Elephant is a monologue quite unlike any other. We are introduced to Lylah who, with the assistance of her beloved piano, steers us through key chapters of her life. Growing up in a council flat, our protagonist regales us with tales of her childhood as a working-class girl of mixed heritage. School children claimed her skin colour was down to the fact that she never took a bath. Casual racism is merely a part of the backdrop of her formative years, but a hefty bursary ensures her a private education that ignites an interest in music. A profound memory is of the windows of her home having to be removed to make way for the arrival of what would become her prized possession.
Lylah takes us through the erratic, sometimes perplexing, experience of first love with drummer Leo, who comes from a contrasting background of privilege. We enter the board rooms of record companies where executives revel in the idea of her becoming the English Alicia Keys – if she could just tone down the intelligence of her music and make it a little less theatrical and a bit more urban and accessible. As the pressure to morph into something other than what she truly is envelopes her, Lucas visibly shrinks before us.
Not all her points are made so overtly but as Lucas uses the ivory keys of her piano to address imperialism, we are drawn into a weighty conversation about race and class in Britain, along with colonial inheritance. Crucially these themes and ideas are permitted to permeate rather than being preached too heavily and the audience is carried along by the pulsating but unpredictable beat of the piece in the same way we might listen to jazz.
Georgia Wilmot’s simple set consists of a rotating platform, upon which stands the piano. Shelves bursting with books on music also serve as stairs. The economical staging allows all our attention to focus on Lucas and her instrument, with Laura Howard’s lighting effectively underscoring key moments. The in-the-round audience configuration commands intimacy despite the size of the space but it is Lucas’s alluring charisma that draws us in from the off.
This reviewer did not see the original production, so it is hard to say whether the extended run time has enhanced or encumbered the play. The pace certainly dips on occasion, and although one can appreciate the raw train of thought format, there are instances where we find ourselves waiting for points to be made. The authentic freestyle approach to parts of the monologue does, however, work well in countering what the record label, and indeed society, wants from Lylah: a perfectly packaged product without fault or flaw.
The importance of embracing our identity and staying true to ourselves, while combating the expectations thrust upon us, reverberates from this little play with lofty themes. It is a magnetic, heartfelt performance, which exhibits a tremendous talent. We are left eagerly anticipating what this gifted star on the rise will do next.
Photos: The Other Richard
Elephant is at Bush Theatre from 14th October until 4th November 2023. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.