THEATRE: Little Elephants a peek into gently eccentric British family

The reason North Americans are so fascinated and amused by British people is a mystery. But at least now we have another reason to tune away from Coronation Street or the Royals visit coverage with another delightful peek into a typically barmy British family in Belinda Cornish’s new play, Little Elephants. It opens Thursday at the Varscona Theatre, with a preview Wednesday.

The playwright, a British person, attempts to explain why we love her people so, “I don’t know – because we’re weird?”

Close, but that’s not quite it.

“Though I dread to say it, maybe it’s the Colonial thing. Believe me, I say that with no sense, of ‘oh, I’m British!’ Besides, I’m Canadian now.”

Yes, Cornish was lured to Edmonton from the pleasures of England by fellow thespian Mark Meer. Born and raised in London, studied theatre at the University of Exeter, she came over in 2000. They got married in 2001 and have been one of Edmonton’s theatrical power couples ever since.

Of the four plays Cornish has penned on her own, Little Elephants is the first time she’s talked about Britishness in the context of a family comedy. The play deals with a pair of grown-up sisters who take an epic journey – at least 50 miles – to help their aging parents move to the countryside. An unexpected phone call, a deeply unfunny incident that may become hilarious years later and some important secrets mum has held back from at least one of the daughters sets the stage for a tale whose moral is that the key to a healthy family is honest and open communication.

This particular family isn’t one of them.

“I wanted to write something about the gently eccentric British family,” says Cornish in her delightful British accent. “The launch pad, funnily enough, was my own family. I must stress that these people aren’t representations of my family … I’m lucky enough to have a family that communicates pretty healthily and enthusiastically about EVERYTHING.”

Emphasis hers, with a dry and knowing chuckle.

However, Cornish says, “The chaos in this family’s communication is echoed in my parental home, where odd things are found in peculiar places. There’s shoes in the oven and there’s trousers in the freezer, and we had some friends who were truly bizarre – reading glasses in the bread bin, umbrellas in the pig shed …”

The British people, it has been said, are also weighed down by not only huge layers of history dating back before the Roman Empire, but by mythology. Their real lore isn’t enough that they have to make a whole bunch of stuff up on top of it. Cornish recalls an incident from her childhood, “When I was about six, I believed I was related to the King of Spain, so I felt very important for a while. I’d overheard my mother talking about my insane aunt, about how she claimed to have been descended from the King of Spain. I missed the part about it being not true. None of my family is related to the King of Spain.”

Visiting the grandparents necessitated a four hour drive, she also recalls, and it was inconceivable that such a long journey would warrant any visit less than a week; Cornish’s relatives back home are astounded that Edmontonians think nothing of making a drive to Calgary and back – in one day. It’s not hard to find other examples of gentle eccentricity in British culture, especially if one happens to be British. As Cornish started writing Little Elephants, she actually had to stop herself from dredging up too many quirks.

“It was tons of fun,” she says. “As time went on, as I was writing, I kept encountering more things and thinking of more things and remembering more things and having to stop and say, shut up! Otherwise this would be eight hours long.”

Starring Nicola Elbro, Kristi Hansen, Glenn Nelson and Val Planche – four local actors said to be well-versed in the art of the delightful British accent – and directed by John Hudson, Little Elephants plays through June 10. Click here for tickets.