Lanre Malaolu sparks an important and increasingly relevant dialogue with Elephant in the Room. You might expect a conversation about mental health to be somewhat bleak, but Malaolu’s depiction of a young black man pushing through everyday life is both witty and profound. Fusing spoken word, hip-hop and physical theatre, the explosive solo draws upon the coping mechanisms and feelings of being ‘stuck’ that are generated by a culture of dismissal.
The piece begins with the struggle to get out of bed. Malaolu, playing Michael, writhes on the floor, rolling and straining to push himself up, only to sink back into the floor again. From the outset, Malaolu’s exploration of depression and anxiety is vivid and poignant.
Elephant in the Room is episodic, flitting between scenes in the Hackney football pitch where Michael coaches under-16s, the barber shop, the street, the doctor’s surgery, and Nando’s, where his friends tell him to “snap out of it”. As we shift back and forth through these episodes, we move steadily through the darkness and light within Michael’s life. Dark scenes of helplessness are interjected with lighthearted humour and caricatures of people we all familiar with.
Malaolu addresses the experience of being both in the midst of an emotional breakdown and not being able to talk openly about it. It’s here that he skillfully engages with the intersection between toxic masculinity, mental health and race. His feelings of loneliness and fear of a downward spiral are dismissed and denied by every other man in his life. Michael is repeatedly told that he’s just in a phase: he’s active, fit, has a job and just needs to “dominate”.
By opening up about his own experiences of depression and anxiety, Malaolu opens up a conversation that most young men, especially those from ethnic minority groups, don’t feel able to engage with. Malaolu has pointed at the elephant in the room, and now we need to talk about it.
Reviewed on 12th of April at Camden People’s Theatre