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Review: Elephant (Birmingham Repertory Theatre)

Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti's play focuses on a Sikh family with skeletons in their closet

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti's Elephant takes us behind the doors of a Sikh family who on first glance appear to have it all.

They are just about to celebrate a lavish party for their daughter Amy as she prepares to move to New York and, keen to show their friends and neighbours their success, they've spent a small fortune on a photo booth, chocolate fountain and life-size ice sculpture of a polar bear.

But Bhatti is quick to show us how appearances can be deceptive. It's the arrival of long lost black sheep Vira, the sister of mum Deesh, and her memories of the past which quickly unravel the happy family.

And while the elephant of the title refers to Deesh's pet name for her younger sister, there is also a sense of the elephant in the room being the skeletons in the cupboard which the family would prefer to forget.

It's familiar territory for Bhatti who is adept at pulling off the veils of respectability to uncover the ugly truths at the heart of relationships. In Elephant we quickly discover that all of the family members – Deesh, dad Barry, son Bill and Amy have their secrets and lies.

Sukh Ojla is the spirited Vira whose visit to the party is her first contact with the family in years and whose anti-establishment energy initially captivates her niece and nephew. Vira is your nightmare guest as she curses, drinks and plays havoc with parental advice. But it's rapidly apparent that Vira's unorthodox behaviour is partly prompted by a troubled past.

Yasmin Wilde plays Deesh as a stressed mum, desperate to keep everything together and maintain appearances, while Ezra Faroque Khan is Barry whose weakness causes so many of the problems. Farshid Rokey plays the massively disturbed son Bill and Raagni Sharma's Amy is a frustrated youngster who can't wait to leave and start building her own life.

It emerges that both Barry and Deesh hold some responsibility for the past, and here Bhatti re-examines some of the issues which emerged in her controversial drama Behzti (Dishonour) which in 2004 was sensationally pulled from Birmingham Repertory Theatre after demonstrations outside sparked trouble. But Bhatti has honed her craft since then and her writing is much more subtle and therefore more disturbing. Where in Behzti there was a sense of the message being shouted at you from the stage, in Elephant it's much more cleverly unpeeled.

The production is also helped hugely by the fact that Bhatti has also become adept at balancing tragedy and humour and there are some wickedly dry one-liners in Elephant which will make an audience laugh out loud. Directed by Lucy Morrison, designed by Camilla Clarke and presented by Birmingham Rep, Elephant takes place in The Rep's smaller Door space which is ideally suited to this kind of concentrated drama. And while Bhatti's drama takes place within a British Sikh family the themes and ideas can be easily transposed to a family of any cultural background.

Elephant plays Birmingham Repertory Theatre until 3 March.