REVIEW: The Elephant Man – Theatre Royal Haymarket, London

The Elephant Man, Bernard Pomerance’s 1977 play charting the life of Joseph Merrick, lacks narrative drive and its stereotypical portrayal of Victorian society is dated, but the whole endeavour is resoundingly saved by two compelling central performances from Bradley Cooper and Alessandro Nivola. 

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Cooper has stated that at age 12, it was John Hurt’s 1980 performance in David Lynch’s film version of The Elephant Man that made him decide to become an actor, he also performed the role for his master’s thesis at New York’s Actors Studio. Having previously appeared at both the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2012 and on Broadway in 2014, Cooper, director Scott Ellis and his team complete their “amazing journey” by bringing the play home to London.

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Pomerance’s play takes Merrick from the squalor and inhuman treatment as a side-show freak, his “saving” by Dr. Frederick Treves, to celebrity and patronage by the scions of Victorian society.

Cooper uses only gesture and mannerism in an impressive physical display, to portray Merrick, and it is a hugely sensitive, brilliantly subtle and deeply affecting performance delivered with an impeccable English accent. It is a performance of such quality that it immediately dispels any worries that this is a mere vanity project for the double Oscar nominee.

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The action is played out with minimal props on a sparse wooden boarded stage, the scenes changing with a swish of the onstage muslin curtains, it is a small scale play and it benefits from this intimate chamber staging.

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Whilst the acting abilities of Cooper and Nivola (Treves) are in no doubt, the play itself is problematic: the pace is laboured throughout despite the scenes being played out in short sharp bursts, and the narrative lacks drive, it ambles along perfectly pleasantly but it lacks light and shade and the treatment of the subject matter is either superficial or heavy handed. That said, I defy anyone not to be moved at by the close of Act One and the declaration by Merrick “sometimes I think my head is so big because it is so full of dreams”.

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A beautifully judged, and perfectly delivered performance from Cooper let down by a dated play.

Runs until 8th August 2015