Kenneth Brannagh’s Progress Theatre based in Reading started off their New Year with an ambitious adaptation of Sir Terry Pratchett’s fantasy novel The Fifth Elephant with its cacophony of dwarfs, vampires, werewolves and humans.
Sir Terry Pratchett who is born locally to the theatre, in Beaconsfield,was crowned the UK best-selling author of the 1990s and is especially famous for his Discworld series in which The Fifth Elephant is the twenty-fourth.The book frequently parodies other literature, mythology, folklore and fairy tale to make a shrewd comment on contemporary cultural and political climates, namely racism and prejudice. The story follows the setting of a fictional Discworld, a flat disk balanced on the backs of four elephants which, in turn, stand on the back of a giant turtle. There are no elephants in the production, as the programme wearily warns: the eponymous fifth elephant recounts the legend that a fifth discworld-supporting elephant impacted the remote and backward region of Uberwald, where the majority of the story is staged. This has led to the town’s lucrative fat deposits (the story world’s equivalent to oil), which is the motivation for Samual Vime’s (Commander of the the neighbouring region, Ankh-Morpork City Watch and Duke of Ankh) visit. He is to secure a favourable deal with the New King (who is a dwarf). Yet when he arrives there is a problem, the Stone of Scone has been stolen and is essential for every coronation. Without it the dwarf kingdom will be in ruin and this will cause a civil war to reverberate through the land. Vimes has to find out who has stolen it and why.
The script is well crafted, capturing the essence of Pritchett’s work, with theatrically sensitive cues for comedy and silence. Yet, with such a complex plot, Stephen Briggs does well to condense it down to under two hours, with a fifteen minute interval. This was heavily reliant on Gaspode, the talking dog and theatre chorus, to fill us in and keep us up-to-date. Likewise the handsome Captain Carrot’s inner knowledge of the dwarf kingdom, keeps the audience in the know. Yet with all this explaining to do, the start is necessarily slow and the production seemed a little top heavy, although never tedious, whilst the second half came to a quick and satisfying resolution.
The visual stimulation throughout makes it an easy watch, a credit to the show-designers’ enthusiasm for their craft. The acute details throughout are thrilling to spot, such as the carefully designed match box, a lonely plane guide to Uberwald, the considered Newspaper and the dwarfs’ helmets with their names painted on in the Dwarvish language. The intimacy of Progress Theatre allows the audience to enjoy these visual cues to reinforce the world and the story that we are being initiated into.
Yet whilst this proximity allows for further possibilities in design, it also provides greater demands on its actors, who are under the watchful and close examination of their audience. Luckily the cast were well endowed and John Goodman’s rolling eyes and darting expressions captures the hero, Commander Vimes, perfectly and was a continue source of amusement to the audience. His exchange with the Igors, the Frankenstine-like-servant family, is lighthearted and fun and Stephen Clarke as Igor is spot on. Likewise Kevin Copping plays a good snarling Wolfgang, a commendable enemy.
There is perhaps some scope for Vimes and his wife’s relationship to be a little more explosive and engaging. Lady Sybil may have missed the opportunity to be more authoritative and demanding of Vimes. It is after all, her title as a Lady that has enforced her will on her husband and made him take the trip in the first place. This could have been teased out a little more in the show and given more affirmation of their love-domineering relationship. Instead she is a little wet, confirmed in her naive alliance to the wolves. It is not until the end where she reasserts herself and negotiates with the Dwarf king over fat trade. Yet she is a pregnant, and it seems a conscious decision by Director Chris Moran to make her maternal figure as opposed to the fiery puppeteer.
Indeed the power female figure in the play lays with the Tee-total Vampire Lady Margolotta, who acts as the unlikely assistant to Sam Vimes in guiding his investigation. In this he overcomes his own prejudice towards Vampires, even though she does leave him to fend for himself in a forest saturated with dangerous Wolves. It is her who seems to be testing Vimes capabilities and she keeps intact an attractive mysterious allure.
The play ends happily. Wolfgang is killed, one Igor is reassembled and all romantic relationships are renewed. Indeed Sam Vimes decides to take a three week holiday with his pregnant wife, an overdue honeymoon. This reaffirm the fantasy in real terms and is a reminder that the story itself tackles important issues, if you care to delve. Otherwise it is just a great show, full of beautiful detail and an imaginative world that is fun for all the family.
The show runs until Saturday 26th January with tickets being sold extremely fast, so don’t wait around. The show runs in support of the Alzheimer’s society, with all proceeds from Tuesdays show going to the charity, as tribute to Pratchett who suffers from the disease. Tickets to the show can be bought on the Reading arts website found here: http://www.readingarts.com/othervenues/whatson/event.asp?id=SXC66A-A7820E90.