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The Elephant Thief | Indian Ink

Its 2066 and we’re in India. But it’s far from a world of super robots and flying cars. In fact things seem to have gone a tad pear shaped. For starters snap-chat is still being used and while security measures in the jails haven’t improved much disaster has struck in all manner of natural catastrophes. The ‘old world’ is reduced to a map and now Paris is submerged, European refugees are spilling into Asia and India’s prime minster is obsessed with space programmes.

Into this space (and there are plenty of cheesy jokes and cheap puns throughout the night) wanders young Leela Devi (Vanessa Kumar). Desperate to see the world she leaves behind her father and beloved elephant and, armed with nothing more than his fifty year old map, she prepares to take on the world.

However it’s one that is beset with corruption, lies, deceit and multiple realities. Leela must encounter all sorts of characters from a dowry-hungry policewoman (Nisha Madhan) and her knife-wielding son (Patrick Carroll) to a pair of faux red cross workers (Carroll and Jonathan Price), a nostalgic Rani of Bourbon (Madhan) who mourns her ancestral ties to France; a Russian-Indian detective (Julia Croft) who has more agendas than she initially reveals; a Prime Minister (Madhan) whose passions make demands that are quite literally out of this world and her Italian bodyguard (Carroll) who has a penchant for violent executions or at the very least, inflicting pain.

But while innocent, the young girl from the hills is named a thief, fugitive, murdereress and in this rather turbulent world on the verge of extinction, everyone seems to want her elephant!

The cast are all immensely talented and Kumar in particular holds our attention through a rather long and meandering journey that is occasionally entertaining but often, simply frustratingly awkward. Nisha Madhan plays her multiple characters with deftness and during a night heavily laden with parody and pastiche there is a genuinely beautiful moment of truth that is not only well received but brings down the fourth wall in ways that much of the audience participation does not.

Beautifully puppeteered by Jonathan Price, the elephant is one of the highlights of the show. It is in those few moments between Kumar and Balthazar (yes, the elephant is named after one of the Three Wise Men) that some of the most exquisite visual and musical exchanges are seen.

Julia Croft is also compelling in her role as the Russian Inspector as are Patrick Carroll and Price, both of whom play various characters with different accents and gesticulations. While entertaining, these caricatures blur the boundaries between a pantomime and a travelling minstrel quintet. However with the pace in the first half plodding along at best, and in the second, catapulting the audience from one action to the next, there is little time to contemplate, mourn or even revel in these changes.

There are clichés and tropes liberally bespattered in this dystopic world and it’s held well through the live score (David Ward) principally executed by musician Adam Ogle with all the cast contributing. Stephen Bain’s tarnished ‘steel’-cladding sheets create a textured layer that works well for Jane Hakaraia’s lighting design and overall this particular microcosm has charm.

But the play just doesn’t gel. The multiple narratives and the quasi-realities that intersect simply aren’t connected. Not just because of numerous plots and sub-plots but also because each story tends to get caught up in itself. At its heart it’s a simple story of coming-of-age for young Leela who leaves home to find out who she is and inevitably, must return to where she started.

This is a work that has so much potential but while the entire point of the narrative may be the nilhism and lack of consequences in this universe, it still feels – as does its lead character for much of the show – lost and confused.