Brighton Fringe 2015
"The tale of Joseph Carey Merrick has been told many times on stage, but this new piece (by the author of the renowned ‘Hats Off To Laurel & Hardy’) uses the latest research to deliver the most accurate account ever presented. No myths necessary, the true story of The Elephant Man is quite moving enough."
Lucky Dog, the company that has been touring successfully for the past couple of years with Hats Off to Laurel and Hardy have, once again, delved into history, done their research, and offered it back to us in a very direct way.
This is the story of Joseph Merrick and his time at the London Hospital under the kind care of surgeon Frederick Treves, who takes on the task of looking after a man whom many cannot bear to look at, who is hidden from sight, experiences aching loneliness and eventually his deformity proves his end. The story is well known. You’ve probably seen the film. What Lucky Dog have done is strip away the Hollywood and presented a simple, bare interpretation that allows Merrick’s personality and his own very human gentleness to emerge before us.
Philip Hutchinson plays a Treves as the facilitator of Merrick, one who tries to meet his needs, but also interprets them and filters them in terms of the society of the time. Merrick is "hideous" to Victorian society, and yet this is a tale of the terrible dynamic between locking the man away from the gaze of others, and taking the risks of giving him space to move and to meet others. Simple things become important, valuable, essential – a gramophone, framed pictures and letters – letters that allow us to connect without the complication of visual meeting- surely a relevant metaphor for today’s texting and social media culture?
Merrick is the Elephant Man, rescued by Treves from a life as a circus exhibit, taken into care that is a double edged sword – a place of safety and a place of lonely isolation. Tony Carpenter is Merrick and uses no CGI effects or clever make-up to create the horror of the man others recoil from when they behold him. It’s a brilliant study in imagined character. We have here the tears of the clown, a melancholy gentleness and a sense of held in pain and anguish. Carpenter is wholly believable as Merrick. Carpenter uses physicality, in face, in hands, in bodily movement extremely well.
This was only the second time the show had played and there’s a need to refine the pacing in parts. Sometimes to the narrative unfolds too slowly and the atmosphere lulls in the wrong way. Yes, this is a bold production that doesn’t hurry and, for the most part, hold the attention strongly.
There are many other characters in the piece which appear, life size, on film as a back drop. Merrick and Treves interact with these and it is sometimes poorly timed and too clunky. There’s a lot of film used In the piece and sometimes it feels entirely interwoven and appropriate, but at other times it feels a film too many. Also stock film from the time doesn’t always feel consistent with the narrative – it is a backdrop that could as easily be invoked with a line from one of the characters on stage. Some of the dialogue needs tightening as well, especially in terms of delivery and interaction with the film.
The core strengths of this new production from Lucky Dog are the central performance of Carpenter as Merrick, the courage to give us a shockingly direct encounter with Merrick and his time at the London Hospital and the engaging simplicity of the script which is economically written and rooted in Hutchinson’s usual top drawer research. It’s a unique bit of theatre at the Fringe, hidden away at the Werks Central Studio in an intimate and wonderfully silent space. Almost every minute of it focuses on the man. And that, ultimately is what Merrick was – not The Elephant Man, but a man.