Anoushka Lucas’s debut play is, on paper, a monologue. But in this melodic study of mixed-raced identity within the British middle class, there are two stars; Lylah (played by Lucas) and her first love – her mahogany piano.
Lylah’s adoration of her instrument, which arrived through the windows of her council house when she was seven, permeates the story. She is working-class, has English, French, Indian and Cameroonian heritage, and “on an enormous bursary from the French government” attends a private school that encourages her musical talent, setting her on the path to Oxford University. On the way, Lylah faces vicious racism in the playground, which her mother tells her to “rise above” as she unconsciously changes her voice to sound more like the Queen.
Through it all, playing the piano is sacred. Its elephant structure is the only thing that makes Lylah feel heard. But as she begins to “think a lot” about its imperialist origins, Lylah’s understanding of her own existence starts to unwind. If the ivory keys of her musical partner are born from elephant tusks and transported to Britain by enslaved hands, what does that mean for the person making it sing?
Scenes bounce from her childhood to her at 29 when she begins to notice gaping holes in her relationship with the privileged drummer, Leo. In meetings with the voices of music industry execs (slightly unconvincing over bodiless audio) she’s advised to be “urban”, told her sound is too “theatrical” and to think about becoming the English Alicia Keys. Lucas’s visible shrinking in her seat is the physical representation of a push-and-pull pressure to warp herself into something palatable. For those of us who are mixed raced, it’s a feeling we know too well.
Developed and directed by Jess Edwards, this is a fully loaded hour that still manages to remain subtle. Lucas jams at the keys of her piano as she coaxes out her internal conflicts and the hidden denials of white middle classes that they’d probably rather forget. Lucas is a writer and actor of rare magnetism – we should be waiting eagerly for what she says next.
Elephant is at Bush theatre until 12 November.