'Elephant' review – Anoushka Lucas journeys through history via the piano in her riveting solo show
Read our four-star review of Elephant, written by and starring Anoushka Lucas, now in performances at the Bush Theatre to 4 November.
The prodigiously talented Anoushka Lucas was recently seen as Laurey, a woman in an impossible situation caught between two less-than-ideal suitors, in Daniel Fish’s radical production of Oklahoma!. Her playwriting debut Elephant, featuring her own compositions, is an autobiographical piece about a character/avatar called Lylah and her love for the piano; a journey toward a room and a piano of one’s own while considering the colonialist history of the instrument. Lest that sound a bit worthy, it’s executed with the lightest of touches.
Returning to the Bush, where it was first developed as part of as part of the venue’s 2020 Protest series and premiered last year between the Young Vic and West End runs of Oklahoma!, Lucas wears essentially the same jeans and plaid shirt she wore as Laurey but with trainers rather than cowboy boots.
An upright piano is set within a circular revolving groove (designed by Georgia Wilmot). Director Jess Edwards makes the instrument the second character and a companion: Lylah hides under it for shelter when she’s overwhelmed and drapes herself over it in a backbend when she’s feeling particularly exposed.
The elder of two daughters of a French-Cameroonian mother and Devonian-Indian father, Lylah has a bohemian working-class upbringing in a council flat in a Victorian house in Hammersmith. She attends a French private school on a bursary, goes on to read languages at Oxford, and attempts to gain a record deal.
Her friends have "parlours" and "drawing rooms" where their pianos gather dust, but there’s no word for a room that multitasks as a bedroom, living room and dining room and the place where piano practice takes place.
Lylah is a likable character who should be relatable to anyone who prided themselves on being academic and well-behaved at school and was seen as a bit "weird". Imbued with preternatural gravitas as a child, she always has to be the teacher when she and her cousins play school and only rebels by annoying her piano teacher by playing scales with the wrong fingering.
Record label executives want to market her as the English Alicia Keyes and urge her to convey a more "urban" image; they also don’t want lyrics that are too clever because they’ll "alienate" fans. It would be nice if the songs here were longer but they’re beautifully and powerfully performed.
Lucas considers what it means to play the piano, historically made of the tusks of slaughtered elephants and mahogany carried by enslaved people in the Caribbean and transformed into a symbol of European culture and accomplishment (think Jane Austen heroines). When Lylah loses her temper with her wealthy white boyfriend’s entitled parents in their drawing room filled with plunder from the British Empire, it’s possibly a speech that Lucas wishes she’d given at the time.
We learn that one set of elephant tusks can make up to 25 sets of piano keys, meaning that one piano can have 24 ‘siblings’, but no one ever thought to keep a record of which pianos come from which tusks. A piano keeps its history to itself, but Lucas is doing a stirring job in interrogating hers.
Photo credit: Anoushka Lucas in Elephant (Photo by The Other Richard)
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