Review: Elephant at Bush Theatre, London

Tuesday 25th October 2022 at Bush Theatre, London.


Reviewer: Jonathan Walfisz

There’s an elephant in the room throughout Anoushka Lucas’s brilliant new play ‘Elephant’ at the Bush Theatre.

It’s not the idiomatic type though, as Lucas’s Lylah notes a white middle class audience might prefer. Instead, Lucas’s elephant is very physically present in the ivory keys of her stage partner, a mahogany upright piano.

The actual piano on stage might not be old enough to have actual ivory keys, but the point Lylah eloquently makes as the play nears its close is the way legacies of European imperial cruelty weave the death of an animal, the slave trade, and a class system together to create a piano. 

More than just an instrument, Lylah’s piano represents history and her life’s journey navigating the complexities of her many shared identities.

In an engaging hour, Lucas darts back and forth through Lylah’s life. Throughout, she shares the stage with a piano that is more than just a prop, it’s a character on stage in its own right. 

From the way Lucas caresses and stares at the piano, to the physical presence and sound it creates, Lylah spends the hour in clear dialogue with an instrument that she loves deeply. 

When Lucas plays, the music is enrapturing and perfectly fits with the mood of the narrative never distracting from it. 

The non-linear narrative itself tells of Lylah’s childhood as the daughter of parents with Cameroonian and Indian heritage attending a private school on a bursary. Surrounded by privilege at school and a loving family at home, Lylah picks up the piano. It’s the centrepiece of her family’s lounge/bedroom and also the centrepiece of her own life. 

Later in Lylah’s life, we see she’s a successful musician on the verge of her big break. Still, her heritage means she’s forced to acquiesce to stereotyping studio demands in brilliantly choreographed moments of Lucas contorting to voice-overs of PRs and execs.

Lylah’s also falling in love with her new session drummer Leo, a posh boy with little understanding of the complex social rules she’s navigating and suppressing to fit in with a world built around him. 

It all comes to a head when Lylah visits Leo’s parent’s cottage in the countryside. The cottage, it turns out, is a mansion filled with colonial souvenirs and the piece-de-resistance, a piano with ivory keys. Lylah loses her cool for the first time as a lifetime of ignoring insensitivity boils over. 

With Elephant, Lucas has constructed an incredible play that deals with racism, the music industry, colonial heritage, love, class, and music itself without ever feeling bloated. It’s all down to Lucas’ effervescent storytelling and piano playing.

The lighting changes and the year flashes on a wall to tell you when the play jumps between the 90s and closer to the present day, but it needn’t. Lucas’ brings a delighted euphoric youthfulness to her acting as a child, and her piano playing gains a charming juvenile staccato. As an adult, she plays her piano with effortless grace and her acting grows in stature with the years. 

Lucas jumps through languages, English to French to Patois to Music in a play that both marvels at the beauty of language, while also critiquing the power it gives those in the mastery of it.

The elephant that provided the ivory for the keys of her piano haunts the play throughout, but as Lylah says “I promise I don’t only think about murder when I play the piano.” Elephant speaks to the horrors of colonialism on the one hand, but still manages to find so much time for Lucas to explore the joys of her life – her family and her music. An absolute gem of a play.

Elephant plays at Bush Theatre until 12th November 2022 – you can find more information and tickets here.

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