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Christmas seems to get earlier every year, doesn’t it? This year’s RSC festive production (they don’t do pantos, darling) opened in mid-October, but with some justification - it’s the first show to be performed in the main house since Covid closed the theatre’s doors in March 2020.
Good reason for celebration then, and the premise of The Magician’s Elephant, a musical celebration of the human spirit in extraordinary times, couldn’t be more apt - even though it was written (based on a novel by Kate DiCamillo) long before Covid and originally scheduled to run last Christmas.
The story centres on the sleepy town of Baltese - brought to life by a glorious Victorian-era stage set with some nice steampunk touches - where the downtrodden people are trying to piece themselves back together after a recent war. Their lives are dramatically changed by the improbable arrival of an elephant, conjured out of thin air by a magician who was aiming for a bunch of lilies (soon to become the subject of an amusing running gag).
The pachyderm’s extraordinary appearance comes to embody the hopes and dreams of the locals, most notably young orphan Peter Duchene, who just so happens to have been told by a fortune-teller that an elephant will lead him to his long lost (and previously thought dead) sister.
Which reads well on screen but in truth takes a while to get going on stage. The first act is an entertaining watch but not that emotionally involving, and it’s only midway through the second that the audience witnesses something close to affecting, as the townspeople opt to put others (humans and animals) before themselves, despite their difficult circumstances.
The message is simple - tragically matched by one of the lyrically weaker songs of the night – but heartfelt and heart-warming all the same, and a nod toward the spirit of the season in which the musical will (mostly) be performed.
But if the moral of the story is ultimately uplifting, then the telling of it is genuinely exhilarating throughout – director Sarah Tipple’s dynamic production features a succession of crowd-pleasing showstoppers, Nancy Harris and Marc Teitler’s songs effectively contribute to (and often are) the narrative rather than distract from it, and there’s mercifully no attempt to kowtow to anything resembling contemporary pop. The 26-strong cast are exemplary throughout - not least baby-faced Jack Wolfe (26 next month but no more than 17 on stage) in the lead role, and scene-stealers Summer Strallen as Countess Quintet (Cruella De Vil right down to the black and white outfit) and Renu Arora as Madame LaVaughn, crippled victim of the roof-shattering arrival of the elephant.
Speaking of which, the life-size puppet pachyderm is a wondrous site - graceful, soulful and utterly magnetic whenever she, and her three operators, are on the stage - but cleverly not overexposed, leaving room for the humans to shine too.
It all succeeds magnificently, fully justifying its claim to be ‘recommended for ages six to 106’ (the 12-year-old that accompanied me complained of sore hands from applauding), and while the show runs a bit late for a school night, this jumbo treat for all the family is well worth stopping up - and stepping out - for.
Four stars - Reviewed by Steve Adams on Thursday 28 October.
The Magician's Elephant continues to show at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, until Saturday 1 January 2022
Posted on Fri 26 Nov