The Elephant Man portrays the story of real life Joseph Merrick, referred to in the play as John Merrick, a man who lived in the Victorian era with an extreme bodily deformity, and thus exploited and ridiculed in the circus before being taken in by the London Hospital and taken care of by the up and coming surgeon Fredrick Treves and his associates. This could propose a difficult subject matter to tackle but Lancaster University Theatre Group certainly approached it in a caring manner and it produced some impressive results.
John Merrick’s condition had to be shown completely through physicality, a huge ask for any actor but Callum Berridge, who played The Elephant Man, really shone. In a sequence in which Treves recounts each part of Merrick’s physical condition, Berridge was required to take on each element progressively and this revealed how difficult this physicality was to enact and to consequently keep up for the whole show. From an enormous head, an upper lip turned inside out and a hung back, seeing each transformation was a real highlight and allowed Berridge’s skill to emulate the stage.
Although the play also tells the story of Treves (played by Jason Naylor), who struggles with his own demons, the other characters are present to support that of Merrick. This is not to discredit these roles but only to highlight the sheer subtlety needed in their characters. Many characters develop through the piece because of Merrick’s influence on them but this must be as an undertone and it is this subtlety in which the changes happened that allowed the play to work. This is testament to the actors who played them, and the direction of Luke McDonnell.
The set pieces worked very well with two major set areas of Treves office and Merrick’s living quarters separated by two doors, creating an aesthetic that was fitting for the Victorian era; set changes were also conducted by people in maid’s uniforms which added a nice touch. However this is where the venue itself comes into play. In the huge black box space of the Nuffield, with a piece like this, the space sometimes felt quite jarring. Although I appreciated that the group used a lot of the space that the venue had to offer this meant that the intimacy of a few moments and some of the subtlety of character traits became quite guarded or lost altogether. Many of the most beautiful moments happened in the walk between the two rooms and although this was a lovely directorial decision to have these transitions visible, because they were situated at the back of the room it seemed a barrier had formed in this sheer distance between these transactions and the audience.
A dream sequence of Merrick’s really stuck out, a lovely piece of video projection was a clever way of reflecting Merrick’s dream but did somehow stick out away from the play’s overall aesthetic. Perhaps adding a new element I can’t help but think this could have been done another way to again add this level of intimacy that the play craves, however this is not to discredit the creativity of the sequence.
The story of John Merrick’s life really is a very touching one and Lancaster University Theatre Group approached it in the right way; from the fantastic physicality of The Elephant Man himself combined with enriched subtle characterisation of others and a strong fitting aesthetic that was able to tie these elements together. Although it was only perhaps the use of space that caused this required subtlety to get lost in some places. Maybe a more intimate venue would have given this piece the finishing touches it needed but it did well for such a difficult piece.
The Elephant Man had the following company: Callum Berridge as John Merrick, Jason Naylor as Dr. Frederick Treves, Ellie Evans as Mrs. Kendal, Michael Dodds as Carr Gomm, Connor Gould as Lord John & Will, Emily Millington as Nurse Sandwich & Princess Alexandra, James Grant as Bishop How and Chad Bunney as Ross & Snork. Direction by Luke McDonnell, Produced by Becky Kinge and Stage Managed by Izzy Everett and Simon Dewsnip.