The Elephant Man
Director: Owen Moore
The story of John Merrick is well documented. He had what doctors now think was a severe case of neurofibromatosis and/or Proteus syndrome which presented as hideous bodily deformation. Initially paraded as a circus freak he was taken in by Frederick Treves a doctor at the London Hospital who found, and developed, the intelligent human being in Merrick’s body as well as studying his condition. David Lynch’s 1980 film starring John Hurt and Anthony Hopkins put the story firmly on the map. Bernard Pomerance’s earlier play explores the friendship between the two men, the tug of Victorian commercialism and disdain for disability among other things.
The play has a large cast which makes it a good choice for a community company like CODA. Its problem is that it’s written in 20 scenes, mostly featuring just two or three actors and it’s very bitty. And – attractive as the theatre at Royal Russell School is – like all school and college theatres it has a very large playing area to accommodate lots of students. In this instance that means an awful lot of walking on and off. It’s a directorial challenge which this production doesn’t quite deal with. Blackouts between short scenes quickly begin to seem contrived, tedious and old fashioned. It might have been better to keep actors closer in all the time – watching from the sides perhaps – and/or to have reduced the size of the playing space with flats.
There is some pleasing acting in this production. Rob Preston is excellent and very convincing as Ross, Merrick’s “manager”. He is repugnantly gruff with his charge at the beginning and later completely plausible as the coughing, cajoling ruined man down on his uppers begging Merrick for help.
Alfie Bird, his mouth twisted and his right arm held useless before him, finds all the strange, articulate stillness and dignity that John Merrick needs. He isn’t, however, grotesque enough. Looking at him in this production you could be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss is about – particularly as Treves (Tom Mcgowan) describes the deformities pretty graphically in a lecture early in the piece. The last time I saw an amateur production of a play about Merrick the actor wore a huge, symbolic metal cage, mask-like, on his head and that made the point rather better.
Tom Mcgowan has a large role as Treves and he carries it off much of the time. The lecture scene, for example, is strong. He addresses the theatre audience and a heckler/questioner voice booms across from the back. Some of his scenes with Bird are affecting too.
CODA’s production uses a cast of 16. Some of these actors really run with what they have to do in their small character roles – Keith Preddie as a Belgian policeman and Alison Lee doubling Countess with one of three Pinheads, for instance. Others are sometimes a bit wooden and in one or two cases inaudible from the back where I was sitting.
This was the first CODA production I’ve seen and I look forward to seeing them in action again. I gather they stage a wide range of shows so I’m keen to experience some of that versatility.