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Elephant review at Birmingham Repertory Theatre – ‘a volatile family drama’

The cast of Elephant at Birmingham Repertory Theatre. Photo: Ellie Kurttz
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The meaning of the title of Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s new play is threefold. Elephant is the pet name of the play’s central character, but it also stands for the elephant in the room in what initially appears to be a close-knit family. In Sikhism, the elephant also has connotations of lust and ego, clues which point towards the nature of this family’s buried secret.

Following the controversial Behzti (Dishonour) and 2014’s Khandan (Family), Bhatti returns to the Birmingham Rep and to themes of religion and shame within families.

Deesh and Barry, parents to grown-up children Amy and Bill, are throwing an extravagant leaving party for Amy. Deesh’s estranged sister Vira comes to stay, but brings the revelation that she was sexually abused by Barry at the age of 14.

Bhatti is eloquent on this issue, highlighting the disparity between distant headlines and the realisation that ordinary men commit abhorrent crimes. Amy and Bill simply refuse to believe that their upstanding father, a “decent” man who spends a night a week at the gurdwara, is one of ‘the men in the news’. Barry has tricked himself into believing he has done nothing wrong.

Lucy Morrison’s production is a no-frills affair, playing out on a bare, carpeted platform. It’s carried by its actors, with Sukh Ojla’s boisterous, deadpan and deeply sympathetic Vira providing a moving portrait of a multi-faceted human being. The straightforward presentation, however, left me wanting more from the theatrical form that has been given to a story which is anything but straightforward.

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A volatile drama exploring secrets and forgiveness in a British Sikh family