Elephant and Castle Shopping centre is not the most likely of places in which to watch a performance. The Royal Court’s Theatre Local initiative has transformed an empty shop into a performance space, and in doing so aims to strip down productions and open them up to new audiences.
The idea behind Mayhem’s Elephant 21 lends itself extremely well to this environment. It's a play rooted in the history of Elephant and Castle, weaving together a narrative based on the stories and oral histories of local residents. It's a bold production in terms of its aims and the story it tries to tell, but unfortunately it is not successful in either.
Sarah May’s script tells the story of the lives of the Valentine family over the course of 100 years. But the writing does nothing to endear us to this family. The play begins and ends in a care home where its oldest resident Carlotta Valentine becomes the subject of the story as the play traces back 100 years of her family history; the whole production in fact feels this long.
We watch the characters transform into their older selves, generation by generation. The tried and tested theatrical device of mirroring is employed to demonstrate to the audience that the transformation is occurring. However, this in itself does little to smooth the transition from one clumsy family drama to the next.
The cast are very strong as a company, featuring both professional and non-professional actors, and the standard of performances is universally high. Mayhem deserves credit for what it set out to do, but in reality the project fails to engage with the heart or the history of the diverse community it takes as its inspiration.
Elephant 21 itself would benefit from extensive re-development, similar to that which will shortly take place in the area.