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The Magician's Elephant - Royal Shakespeare Theatre Review

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Freelance journalist with a passion for theatre, the arts, food and books.
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Review of RSC's Christmas musical for 2021
Christmas shows by the Royal Shakespeare Company, or RSC, are always an exciting time when the production teams try something a little different to the usual plays, aimed at all the family.

Magician's elephant RSC Stratford, christmas
Jack Wolfe as lead Peter Duchene with the wonderful elephant

In years gone by, its festive shows have included acclaimed Matilda The Musical, spirited Wendy & Peter Pan and heartwarmingly poignant The Christmas Truce set during World War One.

This year, after a long absence due to Covid, the RSC players return into the Royal Shakespeare Theatre to bring a new child-friendly musical of The Magician's Elephant, which runs until January 1.

Adapted from a book of the same name by Kate DiCamillo, it whisks the audience away to the dystopian town of Baltese. A rainy, grim place in Europe that seems set in the 1930s where troubled locals are getting over a war.

Magician's Elephant, RSC, Christmas shows, Stratford upon Avon
The dystopia set is dark like some of the story

Here we find teenage orphan Peter Duchenne, who has unanswered questions about his past and family that could be revealed by an elephant, miraculously conjured up by a magician in the town's opera house.

The Elephant is a triumph and done in a similar way to the horse in Warhorse. You forget it's a very large puppet with its mannerisms, expertly manipulated by a team of three(Zoe Halliday, Wela Mbusi and Suzanne Nixon).

There's also a mix of essential ingredients from the joker in the pack - a keystone cops type police chief played by comedy actor Forbes Mason - to the baddie in the shape of elegant, attention-seeking scary Countess Quintet, who abuses her husband along with the elephant for her own aims.

The Countess is played by headliner Summer Strallen, famous for her role in Love Never Dies in the West End. This part doesn't include as much singing but when she does do her vocals, it's a real powerhouse of operatic sound. She's also the niece of Bonnie Langford and has a striking resemblance to her in the red wig they have given her for this show.

Magician's Elephant, RSC, Christmas shows, Stratford upon Avon
Forbes Masson provides the laughs as the chief of police

There's plenty of fun for younger audience members involving elephant dung, bungling cops with truncheons and magic, which uses great special effects through a screen at the back of the stage.

It also helps that two of the leads are likeable youngsters. Peter is elfin-like with an enchanting yet sweet sorrowful singing voice while Adele is an overly enthusiastic fiesty adventurer, who is a great role model.

Both Jack Wolfe as Peter and Miriam Nyarko as Adele are well cast and have excellent charisma on stage.

Directed by Sarah Tipple, who was also an Associate Director for The Boy in the Dress, she keeps the action moving with plenty for adults to enjoy too. There's more mature themes running through it too like a soldier with post-traumatic stress disorder and a couple having difficulties conceiving a baby.

Magician's Elephant, RSC, Christmas shows, Stratford upon Avon
Left to right, Sam Harrison as the count, Summer Strallen as the countess and Miriam Nyarko as Adele

Yes, that may not seem the most likely topics for a Christmas tale, but the RSC is attempting to do something more thought-provoking.

Although commissioned in 2017 and aimed for Christmas 2020 when the pandemic shut theatres, it has parallels with current times and seems extremely apt.

It has themes of loss, being separated and reunited with family and a community going through an extraordinary event together.

It also favours sentimentality over being saccharine and clichéd, which is commonly found in the lead up to Christmas.

Nancy Harris and Marc Teitler are responsible for turning the book into a musical and have done an exceptional job with the songs. There's a memorable soundtrack that get to the heart of the characters and show wit too, particularly for Madame LaVaughn's repetitive song Crushed By An Elephant sung with the wonderful lamentful tones of Renu Arora.

Magician's elephant RSC Stratford, christmas
Summer Strallen, centre, as the evil Countess and looking like her aunt Bonnie Langford

The songs are beautiful and instantly catchy - I have been humming a few of them ever since.

While it does say the show is suitable for six-year-olds, I'm not sure they would sit through the whole 2h 35mins and some of the darker or wordier moments may be dull for them.

It may not be quite as uplifting and joyous as previous Christmas shows like The Christmas Carol or Matilda but it is deeply sentimental. And there's plenty of hope and even snow to send everyone off with a smile.

The Magician's Elephant
is a stunning new musical that's ideal for these times, and one that all the family will adore.


The Magician's Elephant runs at The Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford upon Avon until January 1, 2022.

2 hrs 35 mins (including a 20 mins interval)
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Why? Christmas show with a difference by RSC
When: Until January 1, 2022
Phone: 01789331111
Where: Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Waterside, Stratford upon Avon
Cost: From £16
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