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The Elephant Man (Susan Elkin reviews)

society/company: Artform
performance date: 27 Feb 2020
venue: Broadway Studio Theatre, Catford, London SE6 4RU

Of the several accounts I’ve seen of the story of John Merrick over the years, Bernard Pomerance’s 1977 play is certainly the most thoughtful. It’s in good hands with director Peter Watts and Artform too. The play challenges how we respond to otherness, diversity and inclusion – and could hardly be more topical although the story it tells stems from the Nineteenth Century.

John Merrick – famously – had major physical deformities. Modern medics tell us he was affected by proteus syndrome which is congenital. Exploited as a freak in a travelling circus, Merrick is discovered by Frederick Treves, a doctor at the London Hospital. Treves observes and befriends Merrick. Discovering intelligence and sensitivity in Merrick he introduces him to London society. Eventually Merrick dies of asphyxiation caused by the weight of his huge head on his windpipe.

There is a magnificent central performance from Matthew Westrip as Merrick. It’s a theatrical challenge to present Merrick as hideous enough to send women screaming and vomiting in revulsion while also developing him as a character with whom the audience identifies and empathises. “I am not an animal. I am a human being,” he declares in anguish. Westrip gets round the problem by twisting his face, holding his head at an angle, moving very awkwardly on crutches and speaking in a clear but slightly muffled voice. He also does impressive things with breaths and grunts. He is, in short, totally believable, and that heightens the horror at the way he is treated especially at the beginning of the play. It also makes us like him.

Shane King (looking like a young Arthur Sullivan in this role) is a very creditable Treves – initially just a decent young doctor and later a conflicted, troubled man trying to come to terms with his situation.

Also noteworthy are Robin Kelly’s strikingly convincing performance as Treves’s boss and Kim Pappas as Mrs Kendall, the actress who becomes Merrick’s friend.

This is a production I shall remember for its neat scene changes too. So often in low-tech non pro theatre they’re a problem. Not on this occasion. With cello, organ and piano music appropriate to the period, items of furniture and props arrive on and leave the stage courtesy of a cast who understand slickness.


First published by Sardines:

Author information
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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