Miss Lilly Gets Boned, or The Loss of All Elephant Elders

Bekah Brunstetter
Finborough Theatre
(2010)

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Lilly is a born-again Christian and timid Sunday School teacher. "People are nice", she firmly instructs her class, with a nervous double-thumbs-up to try and emphasise her point. But she's little life experience to prove to her whether this is true or not, until along comes Richard, the widowed father of one of her charges. His son Jordan is troubled and can't sleep for thinking of elephants; he and Richard have some history with them, we find out. Inevitably, Richard and Lilly meet cute; but this is a play about compulsion, about violence, and its lack of interest in giving us a conventional happy ending can be indicated by the fact that it frames the human story with the tale of a violent elephant on the point of being executed.

Playwright Bekah Brunstetter certainly knows how to spin a scene. Her dialogue is ceaselessly sharp, funny, and true to the characters she's writing; at the risk of phrasing it too loftily, I'd say that she gives each of her characters an essential humanity, so that we see them on stage and simply know that they're real. But this is done with the lightest of touches.

Brunstetter is Playwright-in-Residence at the Finborough, and earlier this year it staged the European premiere of You May Go Now, her crazy play about marriage and brainwashing. Miss Lilly is a fuller and more satisfying piece but they both share a distinctively wild imagination, an idiosyncratic wit and a sense that in ordinary life it's possible for ridiculous things to sometimes happen.

So Lilly is a fairly neurotic Christian - only recently converted, but fully convinced now of God's existence (she prays to him, he answers back, is how she experiences it). But when she was in her late teens her parents died in a car crash, and the horrific nature of this loss still hangs over her daily existence. Lorna Beckett gives a beautiful performance as Lilly, with impeccable American accent, perfectly capturing her vulnerability as she nervously clings to the belief that God is good and the world is kind - a belief that she tends and cultivates as carefully as she does the pot plants she loves. There's also great work from Sarah Goldberg as her sister Anna: spunky, sarcastic, borderline-nymphomaniac, and pretty contemptuous of her sister's faith.

Then along comes Jordan, much more well-traveled than Lilly, with his tales from South Africa of what violent animals do to each other, and how does this square with a benevolent God. Lilly's lack of life experience is ultimately what ruins her, and Brunstetter makes a good point about the naivete of a certain sort of Christian outlook, and particularly its ignorance of science. But then again, it is not quite so simple because the play does give us one mini-deus ex machina moment which suggests her God does actually exist. But is He good?

This is a play about the violence that people do to each other; and about animal instincts. Its genius lies in coupling the human story with that of Harold - the elephant due to be executed for violence against a human. In the last days before his execution he is being worked on by a desperate animal psychiatrist, trying to prove before it is too late that he has come back to his normal self and is no longer a threat. James Russell, from the moment we see him, is instantly an elephant: head bowed, feet heavy, his left arm curling and swinging trunk-like, he stalks a raised platform at the back of the stage and emits a constant low growl at the attempts of the psychiatrist (nicely played by Sheena Patel) to connect with him. Brunstetter has based this on actual research by animal behavioural scientists that shows that elephants are becoming more inexplicably and erratically violent against humans. There are theories that it is some mass collective breakdown of elephant psyche, a sort of chronic stress, most likely caused by humankind.

Miss Lilly weaves the two strands together brilliantly, allowing the elephant story to underline the equally random cruelty that can exist in the human world, and the random nature of people's compulsions. There are other brilliant moments of duality too, such as Lilly going through her first sexual experience as Anna, who works as a fitness trainer, shouts increasingly manic motivational slogans in a way that subtly reveals her own insecurities.

One flaw in the play is its fairly weak characterisation of Richard, who goes from romantic-comedy dreamboat to utter cad within the space of two scenes, without us really ever understanding his motivations. So, though Will Kemp does well to make Richard partly sympathetic, he's required to be pretty much a different person in each scene. In this sort of narrative - she meets him, she falls for him, he leaves her, she falls apart - it's always a temptation to make the man simply an utter bastard, but I would have liked Brunstetter to treat it a bit more subtly than that. But then again, in the end she makes Lilly no saint either.

The climax of their story feels a bit excessive, and is one point where the plot seems to be forced somewhat in order to fit with the thesis of the play. But the other climax - that of Harold's story - is a quite brilliant coup de theatre, and watching Russell finally speak, and learning that elephants speak in deadpan RP, was deliriously good.

It's also great to see Daniel Roche (little Ben from TV's Outnumbered, sharing the role of Jordan with Milo Rechler) reprising his brilliant turn as the kid who questions everything, is obsessed with the macabre and violent, and won't take any platitudes for answers. He and Russell have great chemistry too. I know much more now about human-elephant relations than I did before: yet another thing to worry about in this big old complicated world, but Brunstetter's talent is something to be pleased about for sure.

Until 10th July

Reviewer: Corinne Salisbury