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Review of ‘The Elephant Man’

by Mike Savill

Many years ago, the film of The Elephant Man made a deep impact on this young cineaste. That ending still moistens the eyes now. Mawkish or otherwise, there is an emotional resonance to the story of the life of John (Joseph) Merrick that was difficult to shake off in terms of colouring one’s expectations of Bernard Pomerance’s theatrical telling of the tale.

It is true testament to director Tony Jenner, then, that his version strode boldly from any preconceptions of the film, leaving David Lynch’s masterpiece as more of an afterthought, come the end of the night.

On a stylised set with broad, ominous doorways that took us from the squalid nooks of London to Belgium and to Merrick’s sanctuary in the London Hospital, this was a play that had an element of the carnivalesque about it, posing questions to its audience about the distinction between voyeurism and entertainment.

This challenge was established from the off in a lecture given by Fredrick Treves accompanied by images of the real Merrick, while Kyle Cluett, the play’s Joseph, shifted and contorted his body in sync to the descriptions given by Treves. Performed naked, this shift from actor to character was a marvellous coup de théâtre, and very much set out the themes of the piece, no doubt causing a degree of discomfort to some in the audience while doing so.

Once in role, Cluett offered another of those wholly engaging, committed performances that have characterised his recent work. The portrayal of such an iconic historical figure needed to be measured to avoid slipping into caricature or, indeed, downright offence, but Kyle’s performance was sensitive, engaging and charged with appropriate pathos, all achieved while working his body into seemingly impossible shapes and contortions to suggest Merrick’s physique.

Fredrick Treves, the celebrated London surgeon, is no simplistic character – one has to ask questions about his own intentions. Is he any better than the ‘carnies’ flaunting Merrick’s disabilities in the world of the freak show? Although dressed up in civility with voyeurs of an altogether higher social class (including even Princess Alexandra), the principle is the same, is it not? Steve Williams’ portrayal of Treves ably reflected this multi-layered, complex individual, at once benevolent yet troubled of conscience. With his usual powerful presence, he proved a lynchpin around which much of the action took place, and adeptly directed the audience’s opinions to the paradox of his relationship with Merrick – as benevolent saviour or upper-class showman?

Layers were added to this debate through the presence of Carr Gomm, Chair of the London Hospital, and of Bishop Walsham How, who further developed the theological/evolutionary argument. Paul Ackroyd and Dennis Packham handled the characters with customary assuredness and a conviction that left me engaged with both sides of the weighty conundrum.

In the midst of this philosophical and scientific debate, a significant footnote of humanity is provided by Mrs Kendal, played strikingly by Emma Sweeney. An actress, Kendal is employed by Treves to feign ‘human’ responses to Merrick, in a scene of great power and emotional truth. Emma’s portrayal was nigh-on perfect: controlled, assured but demonstrating a fragility beneath it all – a deftly balanced and compelling performance. Hers was a character that also required some nudity, but this was a scene handled with a sensitivity and brilliance by both herself and Cluett that took it far from the lascivious.

Pomerance’s London is a world of Victorian grotesques, ably portrayed by a confident supporting cast. Tom Dignum provided a marvellous Ross, the freak show proprietor extraordinaire, with flowing mane and vicious physicality, a vociferous contrast to his previous BLT appearance as Stepan in Collaborators.

The ever-watchable Robert Dilks as Lord John was another compelling cameo, whose upper-crust sensitivities and presence delighted whenever he appeared, and stalwarts Peter Yolland and James Riley both offered their ever-reliable commitment and characterisation in solid backing roles.Although they also played other characters, I was particularly drawn to the performances by Hazal Han, Charis Anna Beyer and Dot Pullen as the trio of ‘pinheads’ (as described in the script), a seemingly twisted reworking of the Three Fates, victims of lobotomies, emptily staring and offering a beautifully ghastly vaudevillian song that embodied the very nature of freak shows.

Tony Jenner’s pitch was perfect. The pace was measured and the use of space, lighting and music – a wonderful, warped fairground ditty being most prominent – was assured and atmospheric. There was no doubt, come the end of the show, that this piece had left a unique emotional mark, different but no less striking than the film. Pomerance’s script is the foundation of that impact, but the sensitivity and skill from cast and crew alike was the key to this.

I understand some chap called Bradley Cooper is appearing in this play soon, but to be honest, I’m not sure I would bother.