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The Elephant Man, Theatre Royal, Haymarket | reviews, news & interviews

The Elephant Man, Theatre Royal, Haymarket

The Elephant Man, Theatre Royal, Haymarket

Bradley Cooper's star power transfers to the stage

Patient and doctor: Bradley Cooper and Alessandro Nivola in 'The Elephant Man'Photos from the Broadway production by Joan Marcus

Beauty transforms itself into a beast but an inner grace shines forth regardless: such is the enduring power of Bernard Pomerance's stage play The Elephant Man, first seen in London almost 40 years ago and a Broadway semi-regular ever since. The latest New York revival has transferred lock, stock and star-driven barrel to the West End, where local audiences can discover something I've had occasion to remark upon twice over the years on Broadway – for all his A-list screen actor status, Bradley Cooper is entirely at home on the stage.

That the thrice Oscar-nominated actor (now Tony-nominated for this performance) has brought Scott Ellis's fine revival to the Haymarket for a summer run testifies to Cooper's ongoing interest in material that he first tried out at the enterprising Williamstown Theatre Festival in rural Massachusetts three summers ago. No mere vanity production, Ellis's staging plays off the contrast between a noted actor's physical appeal and the deformities of the title character that have become the stuff of legend. (The superlative David Lynch film, with John Hurt in the title role, told the same story with an entirely separate creative team.)

And at less than two hours, interval included, the brisk nature of the event allows those who are so inclined ample time to await Cooper and his colleagues (the three, pictured right) afterwards at the stage door, less one hopes by that point to feast upon celebrity than to offer congratulations on a job well done. And in a piece about a man over a century ago whom people visited only in order to gawp, how nice that the modern-day equivalent pays such rewards.

Pomerance's play, it must be said, remains a tricky customer: a piece seemingly at odds with any implicit sentimentality that director Ellis has done his best to desentimentalise still further, offering up the synoptic action in as dispassionate a way as possible. As before, we hear about the eventually lethal disfigurement that has afflcted John Merrick (his actual first name was Joseph) before Cooper even appears, the actor then adopting Merrick's contorted posture as it is described by his surgeon, Frederick Treves (Alessandro Nivola, ably filling what in truth is the play's largest role).  

The result is that Cooper's Merrick is heard gulping and gasping before we ever see him, the actor then appearing unclothed, except for his shorts, prior to manipulating his body to suggest the grotesquerie that is described. Merrick, we're informed, not only looked pretty awful but smelled bad as well, though I have yet to encounter a production of this play that pushes the olfactory component of the man's disease. 

London audiences may wonder at finding an American ensemble playing a stage full of Britons, though the cast presumably can take heart from a quick-wittedness to their current public that wasn't necessarily true Stateside. (Example: a Leicester joke that went for nothing on Broadway lands with an appreciative laugh here.) And as Merrick is taken up by the same public that once despised him only to become a creature of fascination amongst the Victorian-era swells, the community within the play stands at the same bemused distance from the object of intrigue as most of us are from those celebrities whom we may feel as if we know from pop culture even though, of course, we don't.

The sole figure to cross that invisible divide is the actress Mrs Kendal, a Tony-winning role for its originator, Carole Shelley, to whom the currently-nominated Patricia Clarkson (pictured left) lends an effortless airiness and grace if also an English accent that comes and goes seemingly on a whim. Baring her breast so that Merrick can have some measure of the human contact that has gone missing for most of his abbreviated life, Mrs Kendal proffers an intimacy at odds, for instance, with the increasingly angsty Treves, who is driven by his patient's condition to question the very idea of normalcy in a variation on that familiar theme of the doctor becoming more rattled than his patient. (In context, it may be no accident that Pomerance's play premiered in London in the direct aftermath of Peter Shaffer's Equus, which remains the dominant example of that subgenre of play.)

Cooper, for his part, communicates a ready grace all his own, alongside a keen wit that finds Merrick at one point asking rhetorically "what you have for justice if your mercy is so cruel?" Indeed, implicit to the narrative arc of this play if not necessarily to Merrick's own short life – he died age 27 – is the suggestion that kindness so pure doesn't cut it in our cruel world. Will the star-gazers packing out the Haymarket over the next two months receive that message? With this excellent actor in the driver's seat, I would bet they will.

Implicit to the narrative arc of this play is the suggestion that kindness so pure doesn't cut it in our cruel world

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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