August 06, 2015
After becoming a huge hit on Broadway, The Elephant Man was earmarked for a transferral to London’s West End, where it has found a home for twelve weeks. With Bradley Cooper (American Sniper, Guardians of the Galaxy) in the cast, it’s not hard to see why it’s a complete sell out. We headed along to see what all the fuss is about.
The first thing the audience notices as they sit down is the sparseness of the stage, a square slab of wooden flooring takes up the centre of the space whilst a metal sheet provides the backdrop. And that’s it. As the play progresses, clever use of curtains and a smattering of props bring the entire play to life, divided rooms having to be imagined as doctors talk away from the titular Elephant Man, Joseph Merrick (Cooper).
The story begins with Frederick Treves (Alessandro Nivola) discussing his career intentions before swiftly moving to the discovery of his most famous pupil and putting him up at the London Hospital, where he is treated as a curiosity by many. Only Treves and a ‘not unknown’ actress Mrs Kendal (Patricia Clarkson) treat the Joseph with any sense of humanity and provides a unique love story interspersed amongst the biographical retelling of a tale we all know so well.
Nivola and Clarkson are fantastic in their respective roles but of course appear under the shadow of Hollywood’s Bradley Cooper, who puts in a much-praised performance, electing to appear without prosthetics. The Elephant Man’s appearance is therefore left up to the imagination, though Cooper does an incredible job of aping the mannerisms made so famous by John Hurt’s Elephant Man in David Lynch’s 1980 film of the same name, whilst the costumes and props are gorgeous to admire.
The play is perhaps best described as efficient. Bernard Pomerance and Scott Ellis' production barely lasts two hours including an interval and the overall affection one feels for the performers is a homely one, with well-placed jokes and even a central theme perhaps catering to this (“This is my home,” Merrick begins to realise). Whether it is the masterpiece many had hoped for is debatable but as a stellar piece of theatre in a sumptuous venue, it more than holds its own. Highly recommended.
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By Henry Fosdike