The Elephant Man
Trafalgar Studios 2
Bernard Pomerance's Tony award-winning play charting the troubled life of 19th century sideshow phenomenon, Joseph Merrick, would seem at first glance to be an astute and topical revival in a world currently renewing grotesque obsession with cosmetic perfection and celebrity to Victorian proportions. So what comes as a surprise in this production is Creative First's determination to stick to a traditional staging of the piece.
First performed in 1977, Pomerance's lyrical, philosophical and often heartbreaking script tells the story of badly disfigured 'elephant man' Merrick who suffers from a unique medical condition. Whilst doing the rounds in a Whitechapel freak-show, benevolent surgeon on the make, Frederick Treves, stumbles upon him. Filled with fascination and pity, Treves eventually ends up rescuing Merrick into the confines of his hospital, where instead of being cajoled into performing for the public he is hoodwinked into behaving like a proper gentleman led by the belief that it will make him into a 'real human'.
Director Bruce Guthrie has been gifted with the mesmeric talents of Marc Pickering in the title role, a performer with commanding but humble physical presence and a deep gentle voice which resonates with the poetry of Pomerance's script. In traditional form, Pickering adopts no make-up or prosthetics for the role, but absorbs the deformities into his movement and facial expressions, often seeming on the verge of tears as he undulates through musings on love and the human condition.
Jennifer Taylor also excels as breathless, intelligent and compassionate actress Mrs Kendal, called upon by Treves to provide womanly companionship to the ailing Merrick.
However, despite palpable chemistry between Taylor and Pickering, Guthrie makes the bizarre decision to back their most poignant scenes with intrusive, Merchant-Ivory style music, numbing the raw theatre into a filmic poor relation.
In addition to this, Ayden Callaghan proves an uninspiring Treves, starting out as an appropriately befuddled Victorian gent, who unfortunately never lets go of his repression, even in the play's most impassioned moments. Although in Callaghan's defence, perhaps he is feeling the limitations of the space, tiny Trafalgar Studio 2 which seems to confuse and inhibit both actors and production design.
Whilst the cast isn't particularly large, nor the play prohibitively complex, the production seems to suffer from trying to imprint historical accuracy on a script which doesn't warrant it and a theatre which can't accommodate it. Natalie Powell's luxurious period costumes and fussy props overwhelm both the 100 seat studio, and the three smallish revolving flats, that serve as a stark backdrop.
It is as if Guthrie wants the audience to engage their imaginations with the cerebral ideas emerging from the text, but doesn't quite trust them enough to do so without elaborate visual and aural aids.
It strikes me as odd that a young company such as Creative First would want to revive an older play without any definitive directorial stance, especially when the ideas in the play seem to provide such fertile ground for exploration. Perhaps it is ironic that in a play which tries to examine the flawed boundaries of the 'real human', too much surrounding froth distracts us from the humanity on display.
Running until 5th May
Reviewer: Lucy Ribchester