The Elephantom, The Shed, National Theatre, London – review

The National Theatre’s menagerie of imaginary animals expands with this charming, small-scale show based on Ross Collins’ book for small children. Joey, the war horse, is of course their most famous creation, but the latest puppet quadruped to grace the stage is a giant, floating elephant: a spectral imaginary friend who glides into the life of a lonely little girl whose parents are too busy for fun.

Adapted by Ben Power, the story plays out here wordlessly, as the cast use mime and live music to convey the hectic daily routine that has the adults (Laura Cubitt and Tim Lewis) sprinting from toaster to teeth-cleaning, absent-mindedly packing their small daughter off to school, where a similarly busy teacher (a nice eccentric turn from Avye Leventis) totters about under piles of ring binders. Cast adrift in this manic rush, the little girl (played by Audrey Brisson with a pleasing mix of innocence and determination) finds unexpected company in the Elephantom.

When he first makes his appearance he is fairly alarming: an inflating blue presence emerging from underneath the bedclothes and swooping around the room like an out-of-control barrage balloon. Smaller members of the audience were very uncertain about him at this point – and who wouldn’t find a huge ghostly being in the bedroom terrifying? He soon wins everyone round with his mischievous behaviour, as he pinches popcorn and changes the channel on the television (skilfully manipulated by puppeteers David Emmings, Julia Innocenti and Avye Leventis).

However, like many a mischief-maker, he doesn’t know when to stop. He proves to be something of a party animal, inviting a posse of riotous, spectral pachyderms round to conga in the living room and create a trail of destruction. Our small girl must banish the Elephantom, a task that only a brave mission to a spooky magic shop can achieve. Here the strange Mr Spectral (Emmings) takes literally the idea that many hands make light work, with the cast using acrobatics to suggest extra limbs.

Directed by Finn Caldwell and Toby Olié, the show is rather slow to get off the ground, spending a little too long establishing the daily routine. But it lifts off with the arrival of the Elephantom, mixing a delicate, ethereal magic with earthy gags about farting, mess and smells. Meanwhile the real elephant in the room is the loneliness of the little girl: a downside of our pressurised modern world.

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