When Dresden is bombed at the beginning of 1945, 16-year-old Lizzie and her mother must escape from the city. Accompanying them is an elephant from the zoo, which is, naturally, named after Marlene Dietrich. On their travels they meet a downed Allied airman and a homeless children’s choir; desperately, they race to meet the Allies, whilst avoiding Nazi soldiers and the Soviet Army. But how quickly can you go when your pace is set by a zoo animal?
Lizzie is a typical teenager growing up at an extraordinary point in history, but events don’t impact her until her father is conscripted into the army. In order to cope with the pressure, her mother takes a job at the zoo looking after the elephants, saying that they don’t hold ‘dumb opinions’. Lizzie is resentful of how much her mother cares about the animals and so, when she arrives home on her sixteenth birthday to find an elephant in her garden, she is angry. But that’s quickly forgotten as the air raid siren goes off, and they have to escape the bombs with Marlene in tow.
This is a one-woman show, performed by Alison Reed, and based on the book by Michael Morpurgo. Reed performs all of the roles, and is especially adept at capturing the gangly angst of a teenage girl. The performance is very physical; Reed is often required to dash about the stage re-enacting events, juggling and pretending to be a slow lumbering elephant – and she manages it all with aplomb. On many occasions we hear the inevitable exclamation ‘Is that an elephant?!’, yet no matter how many times it happens it is always funny and it never gets old. This is a testament to the script, written by Simon Reade, which has excellent pacing and mines each opportunity for humour thoroughly.
Aside from needing a city that had yet to be bombed by the beginning of 1945, there is little reason for the story to start in Dresden. It is not the focus of the plot, and considering the infamous connotations of the bombing of the city, it’s strangely distracting that it is used as a setting. It is also infuriating, if predictable, that yet again this is a story set in Nazi Germany where the vast majority of the characters are adamantly anti-fascist; this simply isn’t an accurate representation of the time.
But An Elephant in the Garden is an extremely well performed adaptation of the Michael Morpurgo novel. There is something inherently funny about a cross-country journey with an elephant in tow, and this use of humour helps to offset the horrors of the war going on all around the motley crew looking for refuge.