Before I sat down to watch Elephant I had little idea of how much heart could be sung out within an hour.
As we enter Georgia Wilmot’s stage is small but colourful. A stripped back set and in it - unmissable stands a worn acoustic upright piano. A church hall looking spectacular. We get the feeling we are going to be with it for the full production.
As plucky as the top notes of the piano Anoushka Lucas takes the stage in her self penned and performed piece of work. I have to begin by noting how multi-skilled Lucas is; an actress, playwright and notable composer. Most recently starting as Laurie in ‘Oklahoma!’ I was already excited to see her work. The piece originally played part in the online ‘Protest Series’ in response to George Floyd and now it gets to bless the stage.
We open with “88 Keys”. It's a lesson on the inner workings of the piano and seamlessly floats into song. The piece is a play but doubles as a stunning one woman musical with original songs throughout. We flash forwards and backwards in time with Lylah. Lylah begins at the start of her piano lessons, aged seven living in a council flat. *Not* a council estate but a council owned property. Lucas makes this a clear distinction and I already know the play is going to strike chords with audience members. There are many clear distinctions made throughout. The audience doesn't get time to make assumptions, it’s satisfying.
Lylah is in the UK studying at an elite private school. She’s on a scholarship paid for by the French government. As the only child of colour - not only does she look different to the other children but she also struggles to connect with them because of class divide. These children and their aristocratic families aren’t working class and they aren’t living out of a one-bedroom flat. The only person she can relate to at school is her dinner lady. Despite Lylah’s naivety it’s painful to watch. As a mixed woman myself, it feels all too familiar.
Lucas has penned the show very intentionally and doesn’t cross words with the message she wants to convey to her audiences. Lucas multi roles wonderful punchy characters throughout. We meet her parents where she gets her French, English, Cameroonian and Indian heritage from. Her relationship with her love interest drummer Leo is also testing, he comes from a white middle-class background. His family's ignorance paired by the shoe boxing and stereotyping from the music industry executives sends Lylah on a bubbling rage that beautifully overflows by the end of the show.
Anoushka is delightful to watch, the piece is very demanding and she makes it look effortless. Lylah is believable without a doubt, the show is evidently part autobiographical. The rapport Lucas builds with the audience by the end of the sixty minutes feels real, it’s sentimental, and we’ve shared a common understanding. We feel like listening matters. Jess Edwards has given the piece a very clever direction, the movement and use of the piano in the space are truly impactful.
The show is a snappy sixty minutes long but it doesn’t feel short. I think Lucas, with the help of ever brilliant dramaturgs Daniel Bailey and Deidre O'Halloran, has hit the nail on the head. It’s sharp, it’s witty, and it’s a played-out protest.
The piano in Elephant represents so much more than the beautiful instrument it is. It stands for all of the objects, land and ownership with colonial strings attached that we all look past every day. It's an example of very ugly history making beautiful sounds and displays that we enjoy but don’t ever question the origin of.
The rules that Lylah speaks about really do play out as part of an everyday experience as a person of colour. The explosion of outrage and protest hit a nerve. The anger made me angry but I left feeling like we had accomplished something.
Rage and accountability delivered so poetically.
It runs until 12 November.
Review: Nicole Botha Photo: Henry T.