Review: The Elephant Man, Booth Theatre

“I did not think of all these things, because there was no one to bother to think them for”

Of all the shows that I saw on Broadway, I really wouldn’t have picked this one to be the one that transfers to the West End. But to the Theatre Royal Haymarket it doth come after a commercially successful run. And oh the irony, casting someone named Sexiest Man Alive as the noted Victorian ‘freak’ Joseph Merrick, aka The Elephant Man. The selling point of Scott Ellis’ production of Bernard Pomerance’s 1977 is most definitely three time Academy Award acting nominee (seriously, how did that happen?!) Bradley Cooper and in the grand tradition of things that Oscar likes, he’s feigning a disability in what I found to be a somewhat disturbing performance.

The script determines that no make-up or prosthetic should be used, that Merrick’s deformity should be portrayed only through physicality, and whilst that offers up a veritable challenge to any actor wishing to take on the role, it also throws up big questions that this production comes frustratingly close to interrogating in an interesting way. Putting so fêted and objectified an actor on stage and having society’s reactions in the play range from outright horror to morbid fascination feels like the beginnings of an interesting commentary on today’s obsession with celebrity – indeed, were I directing it I’d’ve had Cooper play no disability at all, to really highlight how we respond to those who are ‘different’.

But I’m not a director, as if the point needed making, and so what we get is a physically impressive performance from Cooper (who I actually like as an actor don’t get me wrong, #teamWillTippin4eva) but one which ultimately feels quite hollow as the vehicle for some meandering philosophising on the part of Pomerance as he seeks to expose the hypocrisy at the heart of Victorian society. Even when Merrick makes a connection with another, the actress Mrs Kendal (played by the luminous Patricia Clarkson), a genuine sense of character is still foregone in lieu of heavy-handed moralising, not even her considerable talent can really imbue Mrs Kendal with any kind of realism.

Alessandro Nivola’s Dr Treves is the only one to really emerge with any real sense of recognisable emotional depth. He’s the one who rescues Merrick from the frying pan of the freak show only to put in the more genteely appointed but no less gawping fire of salon society. There’s real dilemma in Nivola’s eyes as Treves is gradually forced to see his actions, and by extension his whole life’s work, for what they really are. But the play contains far too little intelligent debate and convincing drama for something so worthy – I never felt emotionally connected at any point which felt a fault as much of the production as it did the play.

Running time: 2 hours (with interval)
Photo: Joan Marcus

Booking until 21st February

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