Joseph (John) Merrick, who lived during the late nineteenth century, gained fame and notoriety for his deformities (the causes of which are still unconfirmed), spending several years as an exhibit in London. When he died at the young age of twenty-seven, he was popular in London society, even having received a visit from Alexandra, Princess of Wales, and had been living in the London Hospital for several years.
The Elephant Man, Bernard Pomerance’s play about Merrick, debuted in 1979, and is revived here by Scott Ellis in a hit production that comes to London from Broadway. Key to its popularity is the presence of Hollywood star Bradley Cooper in the title role. Yet his casting is not just a cynical move by producers to sell more tickets – Cooper is genuinely good in the role, his strong performance the best thing about an otherwise workmanlike play. He performs without the use of prosthetics or makeup, conveying Merrick’s disabilities with his physical performance: an admirable feat.
Patricia Clarkson is good as the woman who befriends Merrick and cares for him, but some of the other performances are average, and the accents are all over the place. There is no real tension in the piece, which tells the story of Merrick from young adulthood to his death. Still, in its account of a disadvantaged but intelligent and dignified human being and his struggle to be accepted, it is admirable.