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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
THE ELEPHANT MAN
at Theatre Royal Haymarket

THE MAN WITHIN
By JOHN NATHAN

  Bradley Cooper, Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson/ Ph: Joan Marcus

The latest Hollywood A-lister to perform in London's West End arrived with all the usual fuss and hyperbole. But in this revival of Bernard Pomerance's 1977 play, it all falls away as American Sniper star Bradley Cooper stands, but for a pair of canvas shorts, almost naked while the monstrous physical deformities of his Victorian real-life character are listed during a medical lecture.

Grainy photographs help relate that which language struggles to describe: the misshapen head with a circumference of a man's waist and so heavy that, were its owner to lie down to sleep, he wouldn't have the strength to get up; the zig-zagging spine; the right arm that looks as if it has been fed through a clothes mangle; the volcanic landscape of tumor-infested flesh from which one good eye beholds the horror with which the world views deformity. 

It is during this roll call that Cooper almost imperatively contorts what is undeniably the body of a Hollywood leading man into the shape that John Merrick endured for the 27 years of his short life. Cooper only has to do it for the two hours (with interval) of Scott Ellis' modest, but potent, chamber production. Though two hours is plenty.

Upon the bold physicality of Cooper's performance, the actor builds a quietly touching portrait of a man who, when Treves found him, was exploited by a freak show entrepreneur (an oleaginous Anthony Heald who doubles as Merrick's annoyingly evangelical and stupid visiting Bishop). Now he is exploited by Treves himself, whose reputation soars as if he were Doctor Livingstone and had discovered a new species somewhere in darkest Africa instead of London's East End. This time, however, the exploitation is under infinitely more agreeable circumstances.

Thanks to a glut of charitable donations, Merrick moves into his own quarters at the Royal London Hospital (where his body is still stored). Here Treves attempts to assimilate his patient into London's high society. The first such friendship – the strongest – is with a famous actress (played a by a poised Patricia Clarkson) who well understands the experience of being stared at. It's a relationship that develops a kind of formal intimacy until Merrick confides his desire to see a naked woman, at which point the formality is dropped and Clarkson's Mrs Kendal tentatively responds by removing her clothes. It's a highly charged moment for an era during which piano legs were covered out of modesty.

If there is fault to be found in Ellis' simply staged production, which evokes grimy Victorian London with not much more than shadowy lighting, it's a subtle one. The evening has an undertow of self-congratulatory posturing about it that invites its audience to abhor the vulgarity of celebrity and freak-show culture while simultaneously dwelling on images of Merrick's naked body. Ellis' production doesn't quite have the wit to understand that it is part of the culture it criticizes, which brings to mind another image: that of Ellis, Cooper et al both having their cake and shoveling it into their mouths.

Still, the impression left is about Merrick. Not his monstrous body, but of the beautiful man within.

 


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