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Waterfront Festival

Theatre Review: The Elephant Man at The Lace Market Theatre

8 February 22 words: Rebecca Morris-Buck

Running until Saturday 12 February, The Lace Market Theatre have created a quality retelling of Bernard Pomerance’s masterpiece...

The Elephant Man is a story that a lot of us know something about, possibly because we’ve seen the 1980 movie. We bring expectations with us into the theatre. The character, based on the real-life Joseph Merrick, has a real cultural resonance, particularly in a world where the idea of excluding and ridiculing someone due to a medical condition is now abhorrent. Bernard Pomerance’s 1979 play was Tony award-winning when first staged and actors who have played the title role have included David Bowie and Mark Hamill. All this is quite a legacy for an amateur company at the Lace Market Theatre to take on, but this production, directed by Nik Hedges, more than lives up to it. 

The set design by Colin Treliving is simple, gothic enough to capture the dark side of Victorian London, where a man born with congenital deformities could be abandoned in a workhouse, exhibited as a ‘freak’ in a sideshow, and end up living in the basement of the London Hospital, at once the guest and the patient of well-meaning but conflicted doctor, Frederick Treves. It is the lighting design by Allen Green that creates an almost dystopian edge to the production, playing with shadows and spotlight, and the largely black and white costuming enhances this. The play feels almost dreamlike – or nightmarish, perhaps.  And so it should, bearing in mind the real life story of Merrick. The play is a retelling, based on reality but with some creative licence. 

The whole company deliver excellent performances, all playing multiple characters, but the standouts are David Field as Merrick, Jonathan Cleaver as Treves and Kathryn Edwards as Mrs Kendal – a high society actress who befriends Merrick. Between these three there is a real chemistry, an intimacy that draws you in. These are the characters with real depth, and the power to move the audience. 

This is a play that stays with you on the journey home, and into the next day, leaving you with a sense of disquiet

As the play’s conclusion draws closer, it is powerful and compelling, but ever darker. The play’s theme is that all the people who interact with Merrick use him as a mirror for something they see in themselves: it is less as the showman who exhibits him describes, that people are thankful they are not in as bad a condition as Merrick; it is more that in making him a specimen, they are able to project their own weaknesses and fears onto him. In between their interpretations of him – medical or otherwise – we see glimpses of the man himself. He is creative, funny, sensitive, keen to learn all he can of the real world he is so removed from. 

Field does not wear some kind of mask or prosthetic to play Merrick, and this is a relief. No prosthetic would allow the expression of real emotion he brings to the character, no mask would allow us to understand the man that Merrick is. We avoid any tacky representations of a medical condition, and we avoid the distancing that a mask would cause. Field’s physical acting, of Merrick’s gait, and stance, and of his difficult speech, are incredibly well - and sensitively - performed, in all his emotional states. 

The play asks, ‘Do you know what happens when dreams cannot get out?’ The direct reference is to the size of Merrick’s head – too large for him to sleep lying down without risk of suffocation – but also to the tragedy of him being unable to live his dreams. And the question applies to the other main characters too, as it does to each and every audience member. Yet, as we leave, we realise we are much like those people who visited Merrick in his hospital home: we bring our own meaning, our own dreams and emotions, and project them onto him, onto his story. 

This is a play that stays with you on the journey home, and into the next day, leaving you with a sense of disquiet. The director, cast and crew should be proud of another excellent production at the Lace Market Theatre. 

The Elephant Man is running at The Lace Market Theatre until Saturday 12 Feb. 

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