Anoushka Lucas’ Elephant transfers to the main space at the Bush Theatre with ease and real elegance
“You cannot just remove the tusk”
First commissioned as part of the Bush Theatre’s online Protest series in response to the murder of George Floyd, through an award-winning run in their studio last year, to a transfer to their main space accompanied by yet more plaudits, Anoushka Lucas’ debut as a playwright certainly has a lot to live up to. The good news is that Elephant more than delivers.
Positioned as part-gig, part-piano lesson, part-journey through Empire, it is primarily a masterclass in storytelling. A non-chronological exploration of the life of Lylah, it is a searing look at British class values and inherited sense of imperial worth, told through the experience of a working class person of mixed heritage and enormous musical talent.
With a French-Cameroonian mum and an Indian-English dad and having scored a nifty scholarship to attend a private French international school, Lylah’s childhood is spent figuring out how best to fit in by being perfect and good. With a light touch but insistent purpose, Lucas excavates both the impact of playground racism and also the teasing she gets from her cousins in their Caribbean household for her (lack of) accent.
Other scenes recount Lylah’s efforts to break the music industry, fighting the preconceptions of record companies who are determined to market a black sound for her. And we also track her relationship with Leo, a dreamy drummer with whom she’s building a boho-chic artists’ life, but whose privileged upper-middle-class background is a minefield waiting to explode as things become more serious.
Jess Edwards’ direction wraps everything around the central presence of Lylah’s piano. From the highly entertaining story of its arrival at the cramped family flat to a prop to be clambered over to the vehicle of her musical expression, it’s a powerful core motif and in one of Elephant’s most cogent strands, the history of piano-making through the ivory trade is unpacked in excruciating detail for all of us, but particularly those who would deny that the legacy of colonialism does not endure so powerfully in contemporary British society.
Georgia Wilmot’s sunken, revovling platform allows to Lucas to perform effectively in the round, aided by washes of immersive lighting. And she’s a highly engaging performer, whether in the warmly hilarious impersonations of her parents, singing her evocative songs with mesmerising beauty or building to the almighty of head of steam that is the climax here. She also has much to say – the passage exploring how language has developed to fit the many rooms of the rich and landed but not to cover families who have to pack into a two-room flat is still echoing round my head – and you should take the chance to listen.