The kindest thing to say about the Blyth Festival’s world premiere of Jumbo is that the play is not ready for prime time. Yet it should have worked, given the talent behind the project such as accomplished writer Sean Dixon and talented director Gil Garratt. I suspect that a lot of time was spent on design issues, such as how to present a giant elephant on stage, at the expense of a cogent script.
There is a great Jumbo story somewhere, but Dixon hasn’t found it. Jumbo, the African elephant, was the beloved star of PT Barnum’s circus, who was killed by an unscheduled freight train while crossing the tracks in St. Thomas, Ontario in 1885. What a great local hook to Blyth, right? Unfortunately, rather than tell a linear story about Jumbo, which is interesting in and of itself, Dixon has created a jumble (pardon the almost pun) of characters looking for a plot. Nothing seems to gel. Dixon’s primary focus seems to be the bearded lady, Annie Jones, (Lucy Meanwell), and her loving relationship with Jumbo. At the end, Annie wants Jumbo’s corpse treated with dignity. That’s as dramatic as things get. The rest of the circus crowd have assorted threads of stories that seem like red herrings, not to mention a barber, a butcher’s boy, and a taxidermist who weave in and out at random. As for PT himself (Layne Coleman), his role is absolutely undefined, while the character of Mathew Scott, Jumbo’s keeper (Tony Munch) contributes virtually nothing to the action.
Manon Beaudoin, who certainly has circus creds according to her bio, is listed as circus master, but the acts are lame. A cartwheel here, a tumbling act there; a snake charmer here, an aerialist there. Alas, there is absolutely no hint of excitement in any of these vignettes, which at least would have provided interest to the mushy story. Adding to this weak plot line are several other feeble features like the unbelievably slow pacing that director Garratt has allowed, and, to be perfectly frank, some not very good acting from several of the company.
If anything positive can be said about Jumbo, it is the colourful visual elements courtesy Eric Bunnell’s sets and costumes and composer Deanna H. Choi’s bouncy circus music. Jumbo is depicted as a giant puppet, created by Gemma James-Smith, which really is quite effective, as cast members maneuvre his face and trunk with sticks.
Now, if only there was a meaningful storyline and better acting.
Blyth Festival, Jumbo by Sean Dixon, directed by Gil Garratt, Blyth Memorial Hall, Blyth ON, Jun. 12 to Aug. 10, 2019.