The Elephant Man
(reviewed at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch on 20 April)
Even after 38 years, the experience of reviewing Bernard Pomerance’s play about Joseph (commonly called John) Merrick is one which I’ve never completely forgotten. That production was at the Hampstead Theatre; a new staging by Simon Jessop for the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch has just started.
It’s intriguingly set within a dark-draped circular show-booth by Mark Walters, the sort of fairground venue which would have been familiar to Merrick in the late 19th century as his diseased appearance, then diagnosed as elephantiasis, was exploited for gain. Eventually he came under the care of Dr Treves at Whitechapel’s London Hospital.
Although Treves and his hospital superior Dr Gomm gave Merrick good care and a stable environment, Pomerance’s thesis suggests that exploitation (and its corollary, abuse) can develop from well-meaning as well as outwardly greedy intentions. Gomm’s publicising of Merrick’s case led to a spate of donations to the hospital for Merrick’s care and some socially prominent sponsorship.
Tom Cornish’s Merrick, as did David Schofield in 1977, uses mime and facial contortion to suggest the horror of the physical appearance rather than prosthetic make-up. It’s an intensely moving performance as the inner man – sensitive and in many ways creative – slowly emerges from its carapace. He’s matched by Fred Broom as Treves, a doctor with ambitions both medical and social and Stuart Organ’s hard-headed Gomm.
Fairground man Ross is suitably slimy (and dangerous with it) in James Earl Adair’s characterisation. This being the cut to the chase… company, Steven Markwick’s deceptively jolly score soon mutates in the hands of these actor-musicians into something altogether more discordant and sinister. Joanna Hickman is the cellist and also plays actress Margaret Kendall who undeatands Merrick’s secret longings as only a woman of many parts can. it’s a fine performance.
Ellie Ros Boswell and Megan Leigh Mason are th two fairground “beauties”, there to lure the naive audience into paying their tuppences for what were often fakes as well as freaks. I still think that the build-up to the end sits uneasily within the narrative framework, but the Passiontide parallels as Merrick faces up to the fact that he cannot live much longer and that his deepest longings will never find proper fulfilment are very moving.
This is a play which perhaps is an unusual choice for the Queen’s Theatre. But the opening night audience was a good-sized one and completely caught up in the drama – the tragic as well as the comic elements – as it proceeded. A taste now and then of vinegar or mustard always fire the appetite. What’s true for the palate is also true of the mind.
The Elephant Man runs at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch until 9 May.