The Real and Imagined History of the Elephant Man

Tom Wright
Nottingham Playhouse
Grand Theatre, Blackpool

Listing details and ticket info...

Zak Ford-Williams in The Real and Imagined History of the Elephant Man

The real is often more persuasive than the imagined in this provocative alternative take on the Elephant Man story.

Australian playwright Tom Wright weighs it all down with a poetic approach to the narrative which occasionally obscures the drama. Fortunately, director Stephen Bailey’s production is ably served by a talented cast of disabled, deaf or neurodivergent actors who blend their own unique insight of the often unforgiving world they can experience.

The Elephant Man was the cruel title given to the Victorian Joseph Merrick, a man so disfigured by severe deformities that his initial treatment was to see him consigned as a circus exhibit—“a monstrous wart of flesh and bone—in this world but not of this world” as one character here would have it.

It’s a story that first aired on stage in an award-winning National Theatre production in the 1970s and was then adapted to film, in which John Hurt played the title role in a prosthetic mask. This version, like the original staging, does without the mask and is all the stronger for it, giving Zak Ford-Williams full focus for his singular abilities. He has cerebral palsy and is well able to convey the anger and passion that derives when society so often proves unwelcoming.

It is a compelling and deeply committed performance, matched here by Simon Kenny’s set design. The first act uses a revolving central container and overhead girders to convey Merrick’s upbringing amid the dark, Satanic mills of his Leicester birthplace. The second act is no less uncompromising, even if it is in the more brightly-illuminated but sterile setting of the hospital where his short life ended.

Killian Thomas Lefevre both acts as Narrator, initially slinging a rock guitar along as well. This Elephant Man is unafraid to mash up its period settings and underscore that prejudices can persist, no matter how much we may flatter ourselves.

Within the ensemble cast, Annabelle Davis and Daneka Etchells become a fellow hospital patient or a society actress, Nadia Nadarajah is Merrick’s deaf nurse and Tim Pritchett his father and several other roles.

With surtitles above the stage, as well as sign language on it, this is an access all areas performance that can be demanding, disquieting, but never less than fully absorbing.

Reviewer: David Upton

*Some links, including Amazon,,, ATG Tickets, LOVEtheatre, BTG Tickets, Ticketmaster, LW Theatres and QuayTickets, are affiliate links for which BTG may earn a small fee at no extra cost to the purchaser.

Are you sure?