Review: Elephant (Bush Theatre)

Billed on its return to the Bush Theatre after a successful 2022 run as “part gig, part musical love story, part journey through Empire,” Elephant is a 80-minute solo show written and performed by Anoushka Lucas.

Lylah lives in a council flat (but not on an estate) and is of mixed heritage, with grandparents from Cameroon, France, India, and the UK.

At 8 years old, she falls in love with the piano which won’t get up the stairs and has to be lowered into the flat through the windows.

It’s a love story with music, and with Leo, a blond, well-meaning musician from a middle-class white family and colonial roots.

Production photo of Elephant

Through her story and songs, Lucas engages with all four sides of the audience, complicit in their own ways in her experience, and all receiving a slightly different view of proceedings.

Georgia Wilmot’s set design has piano, a stepped bookshelves, and rugs, in a space set low in the stage and able to revolve during music moments.

It responds to lighting that mirrors the bright colours of Lylah’s childhood home while having moments of harsh spotlighting or ethereal softness from paper lanterns.

Lylah’s mother features heavily in the narrative, whether combing her unruly hair or pushing her into success on her scholarship at a French LycĂ©e (“I was the only person in the school who looked like me”).

Production photo of Elephant

The Elephant very much in the room is the ivory piano keys formed from part of the tusk taken by safari trophy hunters. The piano’s wood, too, is a symbol of the slave trade and the subjectation of Africa. A vicious and violent backstory to the beautiful, tranquil music of a thousand drawing rooms.

Lucas’s songs are soulful, powerful, and very much in the present. In small venues like these it is a privilege to see performers up close outside cavernous West End spaces.

Lucas’s Lylah is stunning and owns the stage with her deeply physical performance as she climbs, hides, sits, skips, and belts out a tune.

As an aspiring musician, Lylah is constantly blocked from expressing her own creativity by dissenting white voices underlining her “inaccessible” songs, suggesting urban artist collaboration would be more useful than channelling Fiona Apple.

Elephant explores identity, acceptability, and history. A brown face to Lylah’s schoolmates equals dirty; to her boyfriend’s family, it offers something exotic but not to be trusted or brought into the fold.

Production photo of Elephant (2022)

Under Jess Edwards’s direction, Lucas is given a safe space to introduce us to Lylah and to address moments about our history, which make us go away deep in thought.

As Lylah can speak well, she alienates herself from the patois of her part-Jamaican cousins, but still finds herself outside looking in as “British middle-class means white”.

Presented last year in the Bush’s Protest season, Elephant is full of vibrant honesty, with a sense of place and progress. Lucas is already a gifted actor and musician; I’d like to hear much more from her as a writer to see where she goes next.

You can watch Elephant in the Bush Theatre’s main space until 4 Nov with tickets here.


Image credit: The Other Richard / Henri T.

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