In Review

The Magician’s Elephant: a remarkable feat of large-scale puppetry

RSC’s big Christmas show features a convincing life-sized elephant, with a ‘playful trunk, flappy ears and mournful eyes’

The RSC’s big Christmas show – the first production to open in its main theatre since March 2020 – is an adaptation of the children’s novel The Magician’s Elephant by the American author Kate DiCamillo. And the first thing to say about this “charming elephant-asy” is that “the star attraction is a delight to behold”, said Dominic Cavendish in The Daily Telegraph.

British theatre has an impressive record of bringing “panache” to large-scale puppetry. War Horse was a triumph of “equine evocation”. Life of Pi, featuring a “sinuous” Bengal tiger, will open soon in London. And in Stratford, the RSC has conjured up a convincing life-sized elephant, with a “playful trunk, flappy ears and mournful eyes” that seem to communicate “patience, mystery and loneliness”. It’s a remarkable feat.

Puppetry director Mervyn Millar and designer Tracy Waller have “created a beauty”, agreed Chris Wiegand in The Guardian. Controlled by three puppeteers, the beast “instantly delighted” the half-term audience at the matinée I attended. The trouble is that the rest of the show doesn’t quite hit the same heights. The “slight” and rather fey story is set post First World War, and concerns the townsfolk of Baltese – a dour place somewhere in Mitteleuropa – whose spirits are lifted when an elephant literally crashes into their lives, the result of a magic trick gone wrong.

The music by Nancy Harris and Marc Teitler contains much wit and spirit, but “few of the melodies stay with you, and the show’s liveliest sequences are dampened by a moralising, oversentimental air”. It’s not a triumph on the same scale as Matilda, agreed Clive Davis in The Times. Still, it’s entertaining and watchable, and “the sheer professionalism of Sarah Tipple’s production carries you along”.

Teitler’s “elegantly orchestrated” music has touches of Kurt Weill and echoes of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. The lyrics, co-written with Harris, are “neat and tidy, although they also have to squeeze in a daunting amount of exposition”. The cast perform with “gusto”, and then there is the elephant itself, which is just “breathtaking”.

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon (01789-331111). Until 1 January

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