ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM at Camden People’s Theatre
Mental health may no longer bear the stigma it once did but it’s still widely and horribly misunderstood, as Lanre Malaolu’s astonishing Elephant In The Room reveals in a brilliant mix of hiphop dance, words and music that digs deep into the soul of what it is to be a young black male today.
Malaolu takes as his text the corrosive way depression can undermine self-esteem with toxic levels of machismo manifested through neurotic behaviour, casual misogyny and a need – masquerading as patriarchal benevolence – to dominate.
And in the course of 60 coruscating minutes of solo movement, speech and acting, often done simultaneously, he paints an uncompromisingly honest picture of what it’s like to be in the grip of a mental illness.
The opening sequence of the performance, at Camden People’s Theatre, finds him trying to get up in the morning. At first, his efforts to drag himself out of bed provoke laughter – but the comedy quickly turns dark and we are soon witnessing a man in despair at his lack of control.
It’s the first of four stunning dance set-pieces that for me are the highlights of the show. The second is a veritable explosion of manic energy as he works out in a gym and No3 is a devastating episode showing him against a wall battling to stand on his own two feet – and appearing to defy gravity in the process.
The fourth is the amazing finale, a combination of propulsive motion and increasingly rambling words, including bizarre facts about African elephants, which end in a dramatic, heart-stopping blackout.
In between, Malaolu brilliantly acts the parts of an under-16s soccer team coach desperate for approval and a streetwise teenager whose surface swagger – advising friends to ignore emotions and just act like a man - masks a sense of hopelessness and a deep-rooted desire to fit in.
The “get a grip” stance was disturbingly echoed in the recorded voice of an obviously white middle-class psychiatrist insisting nothing was seriously wrong, one just needed to be positive.
Malaolu’s dazzling performance was enhanced exponentially by Season Butler’s dramaturgy, a pulsating live electronic score by Jan Brzezinski and a super-smart lighting design that suggested sparking synapses in a brain with a gaping black hole at its core.
I’ve seen a lot of shows in recent years that take mental health as their theme but I’ve never seen one better than this. Elephant In The Room, produced by a greenwich-based Lydia Wharf, is angry, funny, sad, tragic and wise – a truly extraordinary parable for our times. It runs till 20 April. Performance details at https://www.cptheatre.co.uk/
Photo: Lidia Crisafulli