Review-The Elephant Man-Performance Exchange


By: Tom Hope

If, like me, you’ve not seen the David Lynch movie or the Bernard Pomerance play, you can still come to a show about the Elephant Man (the late Victorian ‘monster’ aka John Merrick) with plenty of preconceptions. Mr Merrick’s real life ghastliness had a mythic quality which captures the imagination still – witness the current fascination with China’s own Elephant Man, Huang Chuncai, whose medical condition continues to demonstrate (as with Merrick) the helplessness of the finest medical minds of the time to alleviate his suffering.

Performance Exchange’s interpretation of ‘what really happened’ incorporates original source material (mainly diary entries of Dr Frederick Treves, the clinician who befriended and cared for Merrick in his final years). However, it is essentially a poetic and impressionistic rendition, using a range of physical theatre styles and soundscapes to evoke a sense of what it must have been like for Merrick (played by Robin Berry) to be trapped inside his monstrous body, and for Treves (played by Dan Foley) to realize that this ‘imbecile’ was in fact a sensitive, as well as a sentient being.

The script is written by Nigel Miles-Thomas, who also directs and plays ‘The Showman’ running the freak show from which the Elephant Man is eventually liberated.  Through its reliance on what Treves wrote, Miles-Thomas' text provides a stripped-down structure on which to hang key narrative moments.  With a running time of barely an hour, the show seems over-compressed in places: when, in particular, Merrick removes from Treves’s Whitechapel Hospital for a tour of the Low Countries, it wasn’t clear if this was something he actually did or merely imagined.  (Before you watch this show, therefore, I recommend you at least read the Wiki account so you are clear on the main historical narrative.) This super-compression meant also that themes such as the ambivalence of Merrick’s showmanship were developed with a simplicity which verged on the simplistic.  

That aside, this is an accomplished and assured ensemble piece. The set, lighting and sound integrated to excellent effect in the Fringe Club’s ‘Underground’ theatre space, supporting the fluent shifts of time and place which characterise this production – transformations which subtly underscore the unchangeable nature of the Elephant Man’s physical condition. Those transformations are enhanced by the skill with which Paul Haley and Caroline O’Hara (playing a multiplicity of roles) seamlessly conjure up a fractured London society which could both demonize Merrick for his ungodly appearance yet admire his determination to be recognized as a human being.

What makes the piece ultimately so affecting, however, is its exploration of the ways in which mercy and kindness enable an inner transformation for the Elephant Man – and consequently for those around him. It’s not a complicated message – that disgust breeds self-disgust while love and understanding reciprocates love and understanding.  That these truisms are tried and tested without tipping into mawkish sentiment or preachiness testifies to the skill and stamina of this finely wrought piece.

The Elephant Man is playing at The Fringe Club through December 4th. For more information, click here.

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review, theatre, hongkong

Rate This Show: 1 2 3 4 5 Audience Rating: 3.8


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