Nurses are going on strike. They are undervalued and underpaid and it is fascinating to see the government sometimes forget they exist. At the most recent round table on the NHS crisis, no nursing representatives were invited. Nurses are often an afterthought, dismissed with stereotypes of ‘women’s work’ or ‘just following doctors’ instructions’ and so on. It’s within this context that The Elephant Song, a 2004 Canadian play by Nicolas Billon, makes its UK debut.
It starts with Dr Greenberg (Jon Osbaldeston) ignoring and dismissing Nurse Peterson (Louise Faulkner). As a result, his relationship with in-patient Michael (Gwithian Evans) is ill-informed. At every point when Peterson offers her support, her knowledge and her counsel, Greenberg ignores her.
Greenberg is not Michael’s regular doctor – he is the director of the psychiatric hospital Michael is held in. Michael’s doctor suddenly vanished and he was the last person to see him. Greenberg intends to question the patient about the disappearance. Thus begins a verbal cat and mouse as Greenberg attempts to draw the truth out, and Michael enjoys toying with him, preferring to talk of elephants, while using his knowledge of the disappearance to win concessions like having confiscated property returned.
Evans brings excellent energy and charisma to Michael, who is super-smart and determined to get a trade for his information that is beneficial. Osbaldeston is a match for him, showing frustration and the slow and then not-so-slow running out of patience. Both performances are particularly engaging and let the audience initially follow along either narrative path: has Michael manipulated Greenberg or is the doctor humouring him? The back and forth between them is hugely entertaining, and the script is snappy and sharp, bringing out a lot of laughs.
The setting is a plush hospital office. There isn’t much sitting behind a desk, doctor to patient. Instead, the two men stand then often circle each other around the room, Evans like a coiled spring, waiting to explode. Over a real time 75 minutes, director Jason Moore sets a lovely pace. The session moves fast, zipping along almost as quick as the zingers between patient and doctor. This speed really works to the benefit of the verbal sparring.
The story becomes less engaging as the conversation reveals a slightly convoluted backstory, although this is smartly constructed, with snippets of conversation returning to have a large impact later. There are also some inconsistencies within the tale. It is a stretch to think that the hospital director, who is meeting with a patient to discuss a missing staff member, does not know what the patient has been admitted for. While this allows for the ongoing discussion over Michael’s unread file and later revelations, it does strain credulity. Additionally, this doctor, who has treated patients and become director of a psychiatric facility, struggles to accept that a patient is not being direct and helpful in response to pressured questions. A man of his experience would know better.
In contrast, Nurse Peterson has that experience with Michael. She has built a relationship, she cares for him and can even get him to engage with her on a more human, less toying, level. Faulkner brings all of this warmth through, even as both characters dismiss and belittle Peterson. Unfortunately, we still live in a world where nurses are undervalued and Billon’s script cleverly suggests all this could have been avoided by simply listening to the nurse. Sounds very familiar…
If you make allowances for some of the story issues and inconsistencies, then The Elephant Song is an engaging, funny and entertaining evening with three excellent cast members and a spectacularly well done real-time game of cat and mouse.
Written by Nicolas Billon
Directed by Jason Moore
Set & Costume design by Ian Nicholas
Produced by OnBook Theatre in association with Park Theatre
The Elephant Song runs at Park Theatre until 11 February 2023. Further informtion and bookings can be found here.