by Jack Solloway
Elephant and Castle is a strange and precariously funny gig-theatre show about the lives of Lillian Henley, a musician and silent film pianist, and her teeth-grinding somnambulist husband, Tom Adams. Whilst this may sound a little far-fetched, the play is very much rooted in the performers’ own experiences. Acting out their relationship, using live music and verbatim sleep recordings, Elephant and Castle dramatizes the bizarre reality of Tom’s slow-wave sleep parasomnia and his relationship with Lillian.
A regular sleep walker and night-time chatterbox, Tom has a sleep disorder which sees him regularly blurt out and occasionally act on his darker impulses whilst asleep, blissfully unaware of his nocturnal activities. Inspired by the first time Lillian shared a bed with him and discovered this unusual quirk (‘I want to get in a wardrobe and take you to Elephant and Castle,’ confessed Tom’s subconscious), the show rifles through the closet of their marriage and delves into the darkly nonsensical Narnia of the sleep talker’s mind.
More Bakerloo-Northern Line than CS Lewis, the play swaps Mr Tumnus for Mr Indignant (or so Lillian calls his sweary, sleeping persona), dresses him in paisley, and has him do a strip tease with a Stratocaster. He is backed by Americana-infused nocturnes with tight harmonies and a Freudian twist.
Placing one foot in this dreamworld and the other in the bedroom, Lillian’s eye-battingly
tender disbelief at her husband’s nightly antics coaxes a coquettish performance from Tom, whose ignominious, unconscious self occasionally emerges mid-song, literally, barking mad and bare-arsedly pissy with the world.
Surreal and very funny, Tom and Lillian bring a Cash and Carter-type chemistry to their
music as well as their comedy, shooting questioning glances and embarrassed half-smiles at one another as they make light of their vulnerabilities. Staged around a single, moveable mattress, Bed Designer Amy Nicholson’s prop (though what has been designed here is not exactly clear) shelters and reveals the couple, and sometimes comes between them, playfully inviting audiences into the emotional and physical battleground of their bedroom.
Retro music, home footage and a silent film weave together an incredibly honest story that tells reveals a different kind of normality – one which is personal, generous and occasionally enlightening – particularly in terms of Tom’s diagnosis.
Eye-openingly cheeky, if less experimental than it claims to be, Elephant and Castle is a joy, quizzical and gently thought-provoking, delivering sound performances from Adams and Henley, underscored witty lyricism, retro sounds and daft, brow-raising humour.
Elephant and Castle runs through 20 October.
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