RSC REVIEW: The Magician's Elephant baffles but brings an offbeat charm to Stratford this Christmas

Peter Ormerod reviews The Magician's Elephant at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford

Jack Wolfe as Peter Duchene (photo: Manuel Harlan)
Jack Wolfe as Peter Duchene (photo: Manuel Harlan)

The RSC is to be applauded for its bravery at least. Its Christmas shows in recent years have tended to be big, bright, crowdpleasing affairs such as A Christmas Carol (twice), the Robbie Williams-penned musical The Boy in the Dress, and Wendy & Peter Pan (again, twice). The Magician's Elephant is not like these.

It feels more like a B-side, a moth to those butterflies. The RSC would have been forgiven for staging a more surefire hit, a more known quantity, especially when theatre is still in the early stages of its post-lockdown recovery. But no, it has persevered with the production that was due to run this time last year. Regardless of its merits, we can all hope it pays off.

The worry is that there may not be quite enough of those merits. It is based on Kate DiCamillo's prizewinning novel of 2009, which tells of a drab town called Baltese, whose monochrome mundanity is shattered by the sudden appearance of an elephant. It has been conjured haphazardly into a theatre by a magician, who was bored with the old routines. The beast becomes a source of wonder, pride, covetousness, unscrupulous commercialism and a sort of salvation.

The elephant with Jack Wolfe as Peter Duchene (photo: Manuel Harlan)

Certain aspects of the production are excellent. It looks wonderful and full of wonder: designer Colin Richmond has built a world reminiscent of Martin Scorcese's 2011 film Hugo, a kind of alternative-reality European city of the early 20th century, whose darkness is illuminated by globes of golden light and whose jagged iron structures have a sense of elegant decay. The imaginative projections evoke the magic lantern. The costumes are striking and playful, from the rags of the peasants to the gowns of the aristocrats. At the centre of all this is a thoroughly delightful and enchanting performance from Jack Wolfe as Peter Duchene, a boy whose dreaminess and imagination is constrained by the grown-ups around him and who, with the help of the eponymous pachyderm, changes the way they see the world. His singing is strong but never overly showy, and he brings a natural charm and delicate grace to the stage.

It seems rather sad then to report that there is much elsewhere that seems to be lacking. And given that this is a musical, it is a problem indeed when neither the music nor lyrics seem quite to hit the mark. There is an awful lot of notes but little in the way of songs, as such: a fair few tunes start promisingly but grow rather convoluted, apparently afraid of simplicity and clarity. There is no doubting its cleverness and composer Marc Teitler's mastery of musical theory, but memorable melodies are scarce; the complexity is sometimes brilliant but often rather pointless. To be fair, The Magician's Elephant is not trying to be The Boy in the Dress or a classical musical in the Lloyd Webber style; it is an altogether more subtle creation. But maybe something a bit less cerebral and a bit more soulful would have been welcome.

Although the audience seemed willing to laugh, much of the humour fell flat, whether it be the slapstick of Forbes Masson's police chief or lines in Nancy Harris's book and lyrics. It was also disappointing to see magic not used more wisely, with many of its effects better suited to close-up artistry than to the stage.

And this is aside from even more fundamental problems. The Magician's Elephant deals with many fascinating ideas but in a somewhat unsatisfactory manner. The relationship between creativity and discipline, for example, is well worth exploring; but whereas countless artists have argued that the two belong together, this seems to set them up as enemies. We live in a time when the tension between magic and reality is urgent and endlessly intriguing; this seems to flatten it. It is more successful in its depiction of our desire both to shun and romanticise the 'other', but this comes off as rather messy and baffling.

Jack Wolfe as Peter Duchene with the elephant

It is arguably to its credit however that the show eschews easy sentimentality. This elephant is not some big-eyed Disney creation but a unspectacularly sad, silent, lumbering animal, which is never given a name. Heartstrings generally remain untugged, and while the ending is happy, it perhaps leaves one thinking more than feeling. It all adds up to a show with an offbeat charm; it is unusual, original and, in its own way, bold. It may not be what everyone is looking for this Christmas, but some may find it a quietly magical surprise.

* The Magician's Elephant runs at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until January 1. Visit www.rsc.org.uk/the-magicians-elephant/tickets to book.