An Elephant in the Garden

Michael Morpurgo, adapted by Simon Reade
Poonamallee Productions / Exeter Northcott Theatre
Underbelly, Bristo Square
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This is another theatrical adaptation of one of Morpurgo’s novels for young people set during the world wars of the twentieth century. Like his most famous, there is an animal at the centre of the story that features in the title, although it doesn’t appear for quite a while.

Lizzie is from an arty, middle class Christian family living in Dresden during the Second World War. At the time, Dresden was a pretty, German city so far untouched by the Allied bombing; now, just its name gives a clue to the direction the story will take.

When the whole of Dresden is flattened by the RAF in 1945, Lizzie’s father is away fighting the Russians and her mother has been working at the zoo. When the zoo is bombed, the animals are shot so they aren’t a danger to the public, but Lizzie’s mother saves the young elephant, which comes with them as they flee their destroyed home to find shelter.

The story, apart from being a thrilling wartime adventure, introduces a number of moral conundrums into its plot: the uncle who argues forcefully in favour of the Nazi government; the treatment of the Jews who used to be integrated into their community; the idea that speaking out could endanger your life; an encounter with a shot-down English navigator involved in the bombing of their city; teenage first love; life as a refugee from their own country, where the authorities pose the greatest threat.

The adaptation, directed by the adapter, is an edited version of Morpurgo’s novel, with Alison Reid telling the story from the point of view of Lizzie, who is 16 at the time of the bombing. Reid is a compelling storyteller who keeps up the energy for more than an hour, but this may be a bit much for the target audience of the original book to sit through (although there weren’t many young people in the audience when I saw it on a Sunday lunchtime). Once the odd group of people and animals reach their destination, the adventure is over but the story carries on for quite a bit longer, or seems to, tying up loose ends.

This is another powerful wartime tale from Morpurgo, well-told in this staging, that introduces young people to some important historical events and moral concepts which are all sadly very relevant now, if anything become more so.

David Chadderton