Theatre Review: The Elephant Song (Sweet & Sour Productions)

After the successful run in London of her production of The Elephant Song, director Candice Moore brings her piece back to Hong Kong stage at the Underground Theatre of Fringe Club. It opened last night, and it is a thrill to see such delicate work produced in the Hong Kong English theatre landscape.

Photo Credit: Aaron T Michelson

Written by Canadian playwright Nicolas Billon, The Elephant Song, though, personally, not a fully structured play, is still a ride full of twists and turns to enjoy, and with Sweet & Sour Productions‘s effort, it is an event to be excited.

Rating: 4/5

The Elephant Song is your conventional drawing room play, with one setting in real time and three characters having dramatic conversations scene after scene. It is also your conventional play on the ‘sleuth’ genre, whether the characters are telling the truth or not, and along the way, finding the truth at the end (or not).

Mr Billon’s play hits all of the marks under the conventions. It is even quite funny that there is one line in the play that acknowledges the preservation of conventions, as if it is a joke played on his own play. However, even though the play shadows with vast classical examples of the genre, like David Mamet’s Oleanna, Peter Shaffer’s Equus, or David Harrower’s Blackbird, The Elephant Song does shows a thread of novelty.

The play starts with the disappearance of Dr Lawrence, the psychiatrist of patient Michael Aleen at a psychiatric hospital. Hospital director Dr Greenberg is trying to investigate it on Christmas Eve. With head nurse Miss Peterson as the ham of the sandwich between Michael and Dr Greenberg, that night begins with a power-struggle between doctor and patient, and along the way, we see the revelation of the truth behind Michael’s sickness.

Photo Credit: Aaron T Michelson

I thoroughly enjoy Mr Billon’s writing even though the setting of the play is really something we have seen before again and again. Under these ‘rules’ of structure, I am surprised that there are quite a lot of twits and turns that are actually funny and shocking at the same time. The sharp-tongue tone of the lines, especially those spoken by Michael, are very modern and edgy to a sense that it resonates the language of young adults in this era.

Unlike Equus or Oleanna, the power-struggle in The Elephant Song is quick and not poetic at all. There is no long philosophical speeches panning over to the audience, or long monologues by some sufferer that tries to make the audience to emote. No, there are only quick exchanges between the three characters, and not to mention, most of them are very crass but totally surprising and hilarious because of their nature.

The plot is also constructed in a linear structure, with Dr Greenberg’s determination on finding the truth of the disappearance of Dr Lawrence, while he keeps rejecting Michael’s words on his relationship with Dr Lawrence, which is strong and clear to follow.

As mentioned before, the exchanges between the two are quick and straightforward, that it makes the audience so delightful to follow the investigation through Dr Greenberg’s eyes, as well as to listen and witness Michael’s manipulation on Dr Greenberg. It all makes the ending a final twist, something that is desperately contemporary, that escapes the audience.

Photo Credit: Aaron T Michelson

However, as I mentioned in the beginning, the play is not fully structured under my taste is because though the ‘sleuth’ plot is engaging and all-rounded, I can tell that the play is obviously not just intending to explore the topic of manipulation. It is about a much deeper emotion and passion from Michael under the smoke and mirror of a mystery.

The two monologues by Michael on his father and mother are very important to his character development, but judging by the ending of the play, I feel like there is a lack of description of a character mentioned that really can make the ending a much more satisfied catharsis. Now, with this 70-minute play, I would say another 10–20 minutes should have been added in to make the piece a bigger impact to the audience, as well as to give the characters rooms to evolve.

This is just my personal taste though. All and all, The Elephant Song is a play that is full of successful moments as well as intensive sceneries that draw the audience into the journey of the story.

Miss Moore’s direction really grabs hold to the elements in the play, especially the delicate yet realistic design of set and costumes by Andrew Ritchie and Vivian Chow respectively, the use of lighting (also designed by Mr Ritchie), sound, and thoughtful staging which subsequently support Michael’s internal moments while they never overtake his presence, and the use of the clips from Disney’s Dumbo which cleverly reflects the theme of one particular scene, and the play as well.

Photo Credit: Aaron T Michelson

Miss Moore is also brilliant in casting. All three actors are committed to their roles with craft. They have done their skilful work to embody more of their characters with choices.

Warren Adams’s Dr Greenberg has that manly physique and demanding presence which will make the audience think of how the power-struggle between him and Michael would play out.

Kath O’Connor’s Miss Peterson no doubt will make one to think of Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, thus then questioning the character’s credibility. Miss O’Connor’s delivery is honest and subtle to support that façade.

But of course, Luke Lampard really is the star of the night. His Michael, full of seductive charm, exudes the complexity of his character with a motivation behind, and to think about it after the show, I can see his acting choices are carefully planted. He is funny, he is angry, he is extremely depressive, and all covered with a mask of insanity, and his finale is breathtaking. He is an absolute delight to watch.

Production Information:

The Elephant Song by Nicolas Billon
Directed by Candice Moore
Underground Theatre, Fringe Club
Through 3rd December 2016
Tickets: HKTicketing

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