This is already a popular show: the queue outside the venue stretched halfway down the street; once inside, the less punctual audience members were scanning the crowd for a single spare seat. While many may have heard good things about this production, the name ‘Banksy’ alone has a powerful draw. Writer Tom Wainwright knows this, and the audience are explicitly told that they’ll have to wait to hear about the famous graffiti artist. When the protagonist finally mentions Banksy, he cries that this is ‘The moment y’all been waiting for’, but it isn’t really any more. This is a show that refuses to give its audience what they expect, and is often much better for it.
Gary Beadle plays Titus Coventry (based on real-life Tachowa Covington), a man evicted from the water tank he was living in after Banksy wrote ‘THIS LOOKS A BIT LIKE AN ELEPHANT’ on the side of it, and it became Art. Beadle is enormously energetic, pacing around the stage, fiddling with his jeans, falling into rhythmic strings of words which are almost like rap or poetry. Wainwright gives his character an appropriately dynamic sense of humour, full of unexpected comparisons between his life and Hollywood films and sparring with his best friend, a toy rat called Bee. (After comparing himself to Patrick Swayze in ‘Dirty Dancing’, he refuses to perform ‘the goddamn lift’ when Bee apparently requests it.) But Coventry also has depth and conviction: he films himself narrating his life story, believing that the world needs to see it. He is a compelling character, beautifully written, acted and directed.
As Coventry’s recording himself makes clear, this is a play about to what degree art has power and meaning, whether it can affect the world. It is interesting that when Coventry asks Banksy why he wants to emblazon the words on the water tank, he only says ‘Because it looks like an elephant’, suggesting it’s a random piece of fun. In fact, it seems likely, as the show’s flyer points out, that it was a follow-up to a 2006 work in which Banksy wrote, on a sign on a live elephant, that the elephant in the room was that 2 billion people were living below the poverty line. This show, though it hints that art might be ineffectual in the face of poverty, never quite addresses that fact - it is too interested in what it, as a work of art, is doing. Titus, though compelling, never really discusses his homelessness before living in the tank. Though worth seeing for the humour, the story, and Beadle’s magnificent performance, this show brings an elephant into the room and then ignores it.