THE ELEPHANT MAN
by Bernard Pomerance.
Queen’s Theatre Billet Lane RM11 1QT To 9 May 2015.
Tue-Sat 8pm Mat 23 April, 2 May 2.30pm.
Audio-described 2 May 2.30pm.
BSL Signed 6 May.
Runs 2hr 10min One interval.
TICKETS: 01708 443333.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 21 April.
Bold, imaginative staging enhances this play’s dramatic qualities.
Rejected by late Victorian England for his physical deformities – from early childhood bones grew where they should not – Joseph Merrick became a property for a travelling showman under the title Bernard Pomerance used for his 1977 play. Then he was taken-up for science by Dr Frederick Treves, spending his short life – his malformed body choked him aged 27 – in hospital.
There too he is a source of income, through charitable donations. And a subject of curiosity, though visitors are now titled and bring expensive presents. The sole change in Mark Walters’ setting is the vanishing of the colourful showman’s tent, leaving a grey, anonymous vastness. Only at his death, when a tent-like wall collapses, does Merrick cease to be a spectacle.
Simon Jessop’s revival doesn’t create Merrick’s deformities one-by-one on stage, using the actor’s postures and voice, as did the 1977 premiere. Instead, there’s a slow entrance by Tom Cornish before the revelation of his appearance, also using the performer’s voice and physicality. Around him Jessop creates a phantasmagoria of late Victorian phobias and alarms, including contemporary photographs of Merrick.
The exception is the quiet, sympathetic determination of Joanna Hickman’s Mrs Kendal as she disrobes to allow Merrick to see a naked female. For the rest, from the fairground music that whirls round the carousel of the theatre’s sound system at the start, through the garish make-up of show people and the masked anonymity of the aristocratic visitors, Cornish gives the human focus.
It becomes apparent it’s not in the sweet-tempered, intelligent Elephant Man, whose aspirations take shape in the model church he painstakingly creates at his side, but the society around where the deeper deformity lies.
That’s emphasised by the remote, autocratic manner of Stuart Organ as the hospital chief, while Fred Broom brings a quiet concern to Treves. Yet, when his patient makes a friend in Mrs Kendal, and as the young man’s death seems ever-more likely, a complex of anger and doubt disturbs Broom’s calm manner. He too is isolated, and then, a physician who cannot heal himself, swallowed by the alarming phantasmagoria Jessop’s production grippingly creates.
Ross/Porter/Lord John: James Earl Adair.
Pinhead/Miss Sandwich/Countess: Ellie Rose Boswell.
Frederick Treves/Man: Fred Broom.
Joseph Merrick: Tom Cornish.
’Cellist/Mrs Kendal: Joanna Hickman.
Pinhead/Nurse/Duchess/Princess: Megan Leigh Mason.
Carr Gomm/Voice/Official: Stuart Organ.
Director: Simon Jessop.
Designer/Costume: Mark Walters.
Lighting: Matthew Eagland.
Sound: Nik Dudley.
Composer/Musical Director: Steven Marwick.
Visual Effects: Dan Crews.