This review is from October 2022. ‘Elephant’ returns in October 2023.
If Anoushka Lucas had become the British answer to Alicia Keys that various record company types had hoped to sculpt her into, then this autobiographical(ish) solo show would probably be a grandiose two-hour monolith, playing in a huge theatre, packed with familiar hits, special guests and juicy showbiz anecdotes.
But no: although her career as an actor is now really going places – she was terrific in the Young Vic’s ‘Oklahoma!’ – Lucas’s debut as a playwright is in fact a modest hour, running in the Bush Theatre’s smaller studio space. And it’s all the better for it, in a way, a hushed and thoughtful piece of song-augmented storytelling that exists for the best reason: because she has a good story to tell.
I say ‘she’: in ‘Elephant’ Lucas plays somebody called Lila. There are bits that are almost certainly not things that literally happened to Lucas. But clearly there are bits that did, and the two women are clearly so similar that I think we can call it a de facto autobiography.
Like Lucas, Lila was born to a mixed-race Cameroonian-French mum and a mixed-race Indian-English dad. Also like Lucas, she had an unusual, bohemian working-class childhood, living in a council flat but scoring a bursary to go to a posh French international school. And also like Lucas, Lila had a piano as a child – which took up a chunk of space in their parents’ living room-slash-bedroom and shaped her destiny.
Physically in the room with us, the piano forms the central motif of the show. In part that’s because Lucas plays songs on it, and tells us how she tried to make a living doing so. But it also turns out that a piano is a bloody great big metaphor for basically everything, with its jumble of black and white keys, complicated inner workings, and problematic backstory via keys made from elephant ivory, and its intimate connection to colonialism. In the show’s main plot strand – and probably the bit most likely to not be entirely literally true – it’s Lila’s inability to simply let her posh boyfriend’s parents’ old piano simply be a nice object with no backstory that leads to her finally snapping. (It may be true but I’m not sure Lucas gives off the vibe of somebody happy to literally slag off her ex’s folks night after night).
Really, ‘Elephant’ is a show detailing Lucas’s prodigious ability to fit in – especially at her fancy school – and her slow rebellion against that. To the record companies she meets she is not ‘Black’ enough: they want her to change her theatrical sound, get rid of her posh accent and start working with grime musicians. To her boyfriend’s family she an example of a person of colour done good, but that involves not talking about or discussing certain subjects – like the inherited colonial wealth of Britain’s upper middle classes.
If it was just an hour of Lucas calling out everyone who’d ever annoyed her it might be rather less winning. But in fact Jess Edwards’s production is a sweetly impressionistic show that drifts past in a non-chronological jumble of scenes from Lila’s life, in which Lucas plays a gawky, gauche tween or a silent twentysomething cringing at record company suggestions. There’s a fundamental lightness of touch: Lucas can say what she has to say about her experiences without spelling everything out. The show feels freer and weirder than if she’d gone off on one about record companies.
As stage stardom beckons for Lucas, ‘Elephant’ is a winning, bittersweet elegy for another life that didn’t quite happen.