Operation Elvis

C. P. Taylor
Bruvvers Theatre Company on tour
(2003)

It is at least twenty and probably nearer thirty years ago since I first saw Cecil Taylor's Operation Elvis, and I have to admit I had forgotten just how good a play it is. For those who don't know it, it is a shortish piece (about 75 minutes) about Malcolm, as ten-year old boy who believes he is the reincarnation of Elvis Presley, who runs away from home (in Newcastle), heading for Memphis. He gets as far as Morpeth (22 miles from Newcastle) where he meets Michael, a severely brain-damaged boy with whom he strikes up a close relationship. He returns home after this encounter, but keeps up the relationship, visiting Michael every weekend. The play is mainly concerned with Malcolm, his adult friend Jackie, and Lynne, who is a teenager on work experience at the hpsital at which Michael is a patient, all trying to find a way for Michael, who has no control over any part of his body, to go on a boat trip on the lake.

The play's stucture is episodic: Malcolm (Elvis) narrates the story and we slip in and out of the action and the company perform appropriate Elvis songs as a kind of chorus comment on what is happening.

Bruvvers, heroically kept alive through thick and thin by director Mike Mold (brother of actor Roy Marsden) since the early seventies at least, is touring the show around schools, community centres and other non-theatre venues, then to Holland and Poland, and back again to the North East.

I saw it in the company of a group of some eighty year 10 students in a local comprehensive school, who were totally absorbed. Their uninhibited laughter (at appropriate moments) and cries of distress or even horror, far from distracting, added to the impact and showed what we rather more sophisticated theatregoers tend to forget: the fact that theatre can hit the emotions hard and make a difference to the way people think. Their reaction was visceral and honest and a wonderful reminder of what theatre is all about.

The five-person company - who drive the van, hump the gear, set up the lighting and sound equipment, even put out the audience seats, and then take the whole lot down after they have performed the play (and the Elvis songs: three guitars, keyboard, rhythm, backing vocals and three soloists), and finally drive off again - are a superb example of the best of this kind of touring theatre. The performances are excellent - even though the NE accents are not always totally accurate! - and the very simple set (in the round) and basic lighting create an air of theatricality in a very bare school hall.

This kind of touring theatre - as schools often find out to their cost - can be a very hit-and-miss affair, but Bruvvers' performance shows the genre at its very best and there were quite a number of new converts to theatre after this morning's show.

Reviewer: Peter Lathan