Another hit West End transfer for the National

The National's production of The Elephantom. Photo: Brinkhoff Mogenburg
Mark Shenton
Mark is associate editor of The Stage, as well as joint lead critic. He has written regularly for The Stage since 2005, including a daily online column.
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I'm re-visiting The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time tomorrow for the first time since it originally transferred from the National to the West End's Apollo Theatre. We all know, of course, how that run ended prematurely last December, but it is now playing across the street at the Gielgud (while the beautifully refurbished Apollo is now home to a transfer from the other National Theatre – the National Theatre of Scotland's Let the Right One In, running until August 30).

Meanwhile Curious Incident – which also launches a UK tour at Salford's Lowry Theatre in December -- has already lined up a Broadway transfer, beginning performances at the Barrymore Theatre on September 10. Shows respond differently in different spaces to different audiences, so I'm always curious to see how they transfer.

Director Marianne Elliott made some astute choices in relocating it from the in-the-round configuration of its original Cottesloe run to the front-on proscenium of a West End theatre, so the biggest part of the change has already happened. But there will be other, subtler atmospheric changes, I'm sure: theatres simply smell and feel different, and shows can in turn take on a different flavour each time each time. It's part of the joy of theatre.

I missed The Elephantom when it opened at the NT's Shed last year (a venue that has itself changed its identity since then and is now referred to simply as the NT's temporary theatre), but last Friday afternoon I was able to see it transfer to the New London for a summer season of morning and matinee performances. So I can't report on a change in atmospheric pressure, but the fact that it survives the flavourless concrete anonymity of the New London Theatre is testament to its gorgeous wordless storytelling (to the accompaniment of Adam Pleeth's live score).

To be fair, there are no bad theatres, only bad shows: I've seen great shows here (including Cats and War Horse), and bad ones (Imagine This and Gone with The Wind). Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats ran for exactly 21 years there and became the longest-running musical in the West End until then (and is also coincidentally holding a press event today to announce its return to the West End in a run at the London Palladium). The theatre is also currently home to the hit West End transfer of the National's War Horse. Clearly there's something about this spot of Drury Lane where theatrical animals feel at home.

Even if I didn't necessarily! My Stage colleague Susan Elkin was surprised to see me there, given that it's a kids show, whish is more her beat than mine. It's true that I don't see enough kids' theatre, but I don't have any kids myself so I don't have the usual incentives to attend. Except that, as this vibrant, delightful staging proved, kids' theatre doesn't just have to be for kids.

The Elephantom is also a worthy addition the strong pedigree of the shows that have preceded it here. Like them, it is based on a book -- but whereas Cats was based on a collection of TS Eliot poems and War Horse on Michael Morpurgo's novel for younger readers, The Elephantom is based on a slender, 30 page picture story book by Ross Collins. It took me less than five minutes to page through it before the show began.

So it is a particular triumph of Ben Power, who has adapted it for the stage, and co-directors Finn Caldwell and Toby Olié (the latter of whom also designed the puppets), to stretch it into a show that runs for an hour but doesn't feel like it is overstretched.

Those with longer theatrical memories may remember the endurance test of Gone with the Wind at this same theatre, whose first painful review (which I morbidly attended, as I reported here at the time) ran for over 4 hours. It's amazing, by contrast, how much storytelling can be compressed into a mere hour, and without a word being spoken.