“Things just come out of my mouth which are true”
Truth be told, I wasn’t intending to go back to The Elephant Man. It was probably my least favourite of the plays I saw on Broadway at New Year (so of course it would be the one to transfer lock, stock and barrel to London) but I won a pair of tickets through my efforts on the Seatplan website and able to take a friend, I decided it was worth the revisit at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. The irony of Americans bringing us a version of Victorian London from the Great White Way aside, little has changed about my opinion in that it really isn’t that grand at all.
That’s not to detract from the now Tony-nominated efforts of Bradley Cooper, who plays the physical condition of Joseph Merrick without make-up or prosthetics but purely through the contortions of his face and body. An early scene where Merrick’s physical attributes are described and Cooper layers them onto his body one by one is expertly done but as the play progresses, it remains an effortful performance that never achieves, or allows for, emotional truth, so focused is the actor on the physicality.
Equally though, Bernard Pomerance’s writing allows for very little subtlety to creep into this portrayal of Victorian society. And it twists itself into unseemly knots as it criticises them for turning Merrick’s life into nothing more than a high-class circus act (under the guise of rescuing him from the low-class circus where he’s first found) whilst presenting the story himself as a piece of entertainment for paying audiences (and how they pay, £65 or £108 to sit in the stalls…I’d reckon you’re better off with the £25 seats in the upper circle).
The show is saved by the graceful presence of the shimmering Patricia Clarkson as Mrs Kendal, an actress who came as close to anyone to connecting with Merrick – with the merest inclination of her head or the flicker of an eye, she speaks such volumes, imbuing the text with far more richness than it deserves and late on, provides the one genuinely, sensuously, powerful moment in the proceedings. Alessandro Nivola also does his best with the one other character of any substance, the professor who ‘rescues’ Merrick and ends up conflicted by the circumstances that unravel.
Scott Ellis’ production maintains its lick of pace with sweeping great curtains effecting melodramatic scene changes in Timothy R Mackabee’s austere design but it remains an insubstantial play, anchored by a performance that is admirable at best rather than amazing.