Actress Alison Reid takes on 28 roles in Michael Morpurgo's An Elephant in the Garden
Michael Morpurgo's children's book, An Elephant in the Garden, has been adapted into a one-woman show and is being staged at Rhodes Arts Complex next Saturday afternoon (May 25).
Set in the German city of Dresden in 1945, it's the tale of a girl named Lizzie, her zookeeper mother and an elephant, as they flee the Allied firebombing at the end of the Second World War.
As the trio try to evade the Allies from the west and the Russians from the east, they meet a variety of characters including an RAF officer who has bailed out of his aeroplane, a school choir on the run from the Nazis and a kind-hearted Countess.
Each of the 28 roles in the production, including that of Marlene the elephant, are performed by a single actress, Alison Reid.
Alison has worked extensively as an actress at the Royal Shakespeare Company, at the Bristol Old Vic and the National Theatre.
Her TV work includes the BAFTA-winning Three Girls, a BBC One drama based on the true stories of sexual abuse and child grooming in Rochdale between 2008 and 2012. She also played a journalist in BBC mini series Five Daughters, which recounted the final weeks in the lives of the five young women who were murdered in Ipswich in 2006.
Alison has performed An Elephant in the Garden on and off since 2017 and last summer it was taken to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. "We did really well. We were pretty full most days," she said.
Morpurgo's story was adapted for the stage by her good friend, Simon Reade, with Alison in mind to appear in it. He has written screenplays of several of the author's novels, his best-known being the five-star theatrical touring production of Private Peaceful. "We've known each other a long time, since we were students," she said.
An Elephant in the Garden follow a similar formula to that of its predecessor; one storyteller sets the scene with minimal physical aids.
"It's a very simple play in the sense that we don't change costume, we have very few props and it's a bare stage, so it all falls on the actor," said Alison. "I'm painting the audience an picture and they're imagining it in their minds."
The role of the countess is one of her favourites. "I'd quite like to be her," she said. "She's a wonderful, strong, commanding woman. She has a big house – a house full of refugees fleeing the war. She doesn't mind standing up to the German soldiers."
To flit between the male and female roles, Alison's clothes are androgynous. She wears a long-sleeved top, dungarees and boots, and she keeps her hair short. She uses accents to differentiate the characters; while many of them are German, she employs regional dialects to help the audience.
Simple gestures are a key way in which she moves from one role to the next. "It might be an incline of the head or a stoop of the shoulders for older characters," she said.
Throughout the 75-minute production, Alison has her work cut out, but it's an experience that she enjoys. "It's pretty intense and it takes a lot of concentration, but the bounce back from the audience is great. It's a really lovely story to tell," she said.
The play deals with a dark subject matter in a child-friendly way, without sacrificing poignancy. For this, Alison gives full credit to the original storyteller.
"The really brilliant thing about Michael Morpurgo is that he addresses these issues – they're part of the world we live in – and he opens them up in a way children can understand," she said. "He believes in humanity, and the audience believes things will come good in the end.
"We can't pretend we don't live in the world we do, and children know what's going on. It's important to engage with it, but not to frighten them."
The use of an animal character helps to make the story more accessible for younger theatregoers. "Lizzie and her mother are fleeing from Dresden. They're trying to hide and escape and they've got a great big elephant with them. There's an element of humour as well," she said.
An Elephant in the Garden resonates in terms of the plight of refugees and displaced people fleeing wars around the world today.
Alison said: "People can look back and think 'Gosh, if our city was bombed like that, that could be me. That could be us running for our lives with nothing'."
* Tickets to An Elephant in the Garden at Rhodes on Saturday May 25 cost £11.50 for under-16s and over-60s, £14.50 for others. Curtain up is at 3pm. For further details, visit www.rhodesartscomplex.co.uk