Review – Elling at the Trafalgar Studios

Monday 9 July 2007

A play about an under-achieving duo. What could the Whingers possibly have in common with these characters?

Andrew has been rabbiting on about seeing Elling since its sell-out run at the Bush Theatre. Ostensibly this was because of the rave reviews it received but it probably also had something to do with the fact that it stars John Simm (from cult TV show Life on Mars) who recently played The Master in Andrew’s TV fave Doctor Who. This is the same Andrew who still claims not to watch telly, by the way.

Anyway, so it was that the Whingers elected to eschew participation in the Tour de France prologue this year in favour of a trip to the Trafalgar Studios for the Saturday matinee of Elling.

They only just made it, mind you. Attempts to cross the route at Whitehall to get to the theatre were constantly thwarted by officials who were not taken in by Phil’s yellow jersey for a moment. Possibly because of the “I HEART DAYTIME TV” cross-stitching emblazoned across it.

With each second that ticked towards 2.30, other frantic Elling ticket-holders joined in their wake frantically trying to get to the theatre. The police were deaf to all appeals and the officials were heartless to the group’s pleas of a cultural emergency. One even told the Whingers to stop raising their voices which was strange as she was the one doing the shouting.

Anyway, in the manner of an Ealing Comedy, the motley band of ordinary English theatre-goers won the day, defeating the bureaucratic jobsworths to be escorted across Whitehall by a long-suffering-yet-kind-hearted senior steward who could have been played by Alistair Simm.

So, by now you’re probably wondering about the play.

Elling (John Simm) is an repressed eccentric whose life revolved entirely around his mother upon whom he depended utterly. Following her death, the Norwegian authorities incarcerated the helpless Elling in an institution where he shares a room with the gentle but sexually frustrated virgin “gorilla” Kjell Bjarne (Adrian Bower of Teachers fame).

The authorities decide that it is time to reintegrate the couple into society by setting them up in a flat in Oslo under the occasional supervision of social worker Frank Asli (Keir Charles).

Even the most fundamental elements of everyday life are a mystery to Elling (“Mother did all the shopping; I was in charge of ideology”) and the play charts their bumpy progress towards “normality”, the biggest obstacle to which appears to be Frank Asli’s threat that failure to re-assimilate will result in their return to the asylum.

But one by one, the challenges are met – Elling uses the telephone and finds a friend; Kjell Bjarne uses a restaurant and falls in love. But seemingly for every success there’s a crisis that colours Frank Asli’s view of their progress. Will they make it?

Of course they will. Elling is a feel-good story of the first degree. It’s also utterly charming and very funny. The Whingers sat grinning from ear to ear like, well, the idiots they are.

The cast (as name-checked above plus Ingrid Lacey and veteran Jonathan Cecil) are all superb, but it’s John Simm who steals the show. It would be difficult to imagine a role which is a further departure from his TV work than this and Simm is utterly convincing. His range of mannerisms and his delivery have hints of Kenneth Williams, Pee-Wee Herman and a dash of The League of Gentlemen about them while maintaining both Elling’s insufferable priggishness and his absolute vulnerability.

He is also very, very funny. The Whingers haven’t been as bowled over by such an unexpected comic performance since seeing Mark Rylance in Boeing, Boeing.

The exuberance of the comedy is counterpointed with suitably short and under-played moments of sentimentality and even the message of the play – that being normal means being human and fallible – is delivered deftly.

So hats off to uber-busy director Paul Miller (who talks about the frantic re-blocking for the transfer here). Miller’s The Enchantment opens at the National later this month and the Whingers are looking forward to it now.

It all makes for a great evening or afternoon at the theatre and the Whingers are grateful that at last they have seen a production which made them come out burbling with enthusiasm. Indeed, it’s right up there in our spartanly furnished Pantheon of theatre-worth-sitting-through alongside Frost/Nixon, The Glass Menagerie, The Lady from Dubuque and Boeing, Boeing.

And as a bonus it features a very amusing and utterly deserved send-up of modern poetry.

The Whingers enthusiasm derives from the disturbing parallels- yet again – between the lives on the stage and the “lives” of the Whingers. In fact it was spooky:

  • the “odd couple of Oslo”
  • Elling’s notebook (Moleskine ruled reporter) is exactly the same as those used by the Whingers
  • Andrew has the same pyjamas as Elling
  • there is a scene involving alcohol induced vomiting


  • Elling is based on the novel by Norwegian author Ingvar Ambjørnsen; the 2001 film was nominated for a best foreign language Oscar.
  • Director Paul Miller is directing the Los Angeles production of The History Boys.
  • John Simm is either left-handed and going abroad or in the process of giving up smoking judging by the plaster/patch on his right shoulder.
  • Good seats are vital in Trafalgar Studio 1 and TKTS came up trumps – tickets in the centre of the first raised row.
  • Phil was thrilled to get more material to add to his “live food consumption on stage” scrapbook, on this occasion a pizza although an extensive post-show discussion between the Whingers failed to settle the argument as to whether the topping was mozzarella cheese (Andrew) or pineapple (Phil). The Whingers have made a note to call the press office to confirm and will report back.

12 Responses to “Review – Elling at the Trafalgar Studios”

  1. This is a truly delightful show, one of the best things I’ve seen this year. I caught it at the Bush and remember leaving the theatre in a warm and happy mood that lasted well into the next day.

    Oh, and on the subject of on-stage food consumption – the pies at the concert production of Sweeney Todd at the RFH even got their own programme credit.

  2. Phil (a west end whinger) Says:

    Excellent, it’s time on stage food got the credit it deserves. Can’t wait to see what Saint Joan gets to nosh her way through. Toasted marshmallows?

  3. bakednudel Says:

    So glad to read another rave about Elling! I saw the first preview night at the Bush and was enchanted.

    The patch on John Simm’s shoulder covers up a tattoo. Somehow Elling doesn’t strike me as a character who would have one!

  4. A tattoo! Damn. We didn’t think of that. Maybe we shouldn’t try writing that ingenious whodunnit after all.

  5. meagain Says:

    At the Bush they had pineapple on the pizza. At least twice. But you can´t sit that close to the stage in the Trafalgar Studio to detect pineapple on a pizza, can you?

    John Simm blew you away, if you sat too close to the stage at the Bush and Adrian Bower is absolutely underestimated. He gives the best support one can imagine.

    And Kjell Bjarne is never called a “gorilla”, but “orang-utan” which is a much more important difference, than the choice of pizza topping. It is used to describe Kjell Bjarnes adorably simple character, and that has nothing in common with a gorilla at all.

  6. meagain –

    I still maintain it was mozzarella but I will bow to your superior knowledge of matters simian regarding the gorilla question. Facts are not our strong point.

  7. meagain Says:

    Maybe they got sick of having pineapple on their pizza every day and changed that for the Trafalgar Studio. At the Bush I was as close to the pizza as one could get to it (I just say, pull in your legs, Mr Simm needs the space…), twice. Believe me, it was pineapple.

  8. westendwhinger Says:

    Meagain is of course, like Phil, absolutely correct. It was definitely pineapple, looked nothing like mozzarella. Andrew must concede that Phil is the on-stage food expert.

  9. I completely failed to notice whether it was mozarella or pineapple, sorry. But there were hotdogs too as I remember…

  10. Chris Says:

    Sorry to throw a tiger among the albatross but in Traf Studios i’m sure it was a pepperoni pizza!!! (and no, i’m NOT just saying that to cause more discussion!)

    I, too, LOVED the performances in this play. John Simms was truly amazing and I think one of our group summed him up perfectly when they said…. ‘I completely forgot I was watching John Simms until the bows, then he became him again and I realised I’d been watching an actor at work all evening’

    Truly great.

  11. AnnaWaits Says:

    It was pineapple on Tuesday… 🙂

    Found this blog via Interval Drinks and I must say I’m very glad I came – and also very glad that seemingly everyone was as enchanted by this play as me!

  12. Graham Says:

    Andrew was right – Kjell is called a gorilla (at least he was last night). John Simm’s voice reminded me of Maggie Smith playing Lady Bracknell.

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