What can you do with 90 minutes? You could stand in the freezing cold watching a football match or travel from London to Birmingham on an over-crowded train. If you are sensible however, you will get yourself to the Brockley Jack to see the truly astounding Fourth Monkey Ensemble Production of “Elephant Man”.
Joseph Merrick (Daniel Chrisostomou) is a young hideously deformed man in his 20s being exhibited as the Elephant Man in a shop in Whitechapel by his ‘manager/business partner’ Tom Norman (Adam Trussell). The shop – which still exists by the way – is directly opposite The London Hospital where medical students had alerted Dr Frederick Treves (Scott McGarrick) to the wonder across the road. Treves visits and, having seen Joseph ‘rents’ him from Norman so that he can show him – for the purposes of medical research of course – to other colleagues in the hospital. Eventually and despite the misgivings of many, Treves moves Joseph into the hospital permanently where he lives – tormented by his nightmares and unsympathetic staff such as the ultra-nasty Dr Reginald Tuckett (Adam Trussell) – and becomes something of a sensation amongst the elite of society Victorian. Under the care of Treves, Sister Ireland (Ami Sayers) and the initially horrified Nurse Huxley (Katie Turner), Joseph blooms. His speech becomes recognizable and the wonderful inner person – intelligent, cultured and sensitive – begins to shine through changing the focus from Joseph Merrick the deformed ‘Elephant Man’ to just Joseph Merrick, the man.
Like most people, I have seen the multi-award winning 1980 film “The Elephant Man” and was really intrigued as to how this epic true story could be presented on the stage. However, from the first moment, entering the darkened theatre, the stage bare except for a curtained iron bedstead with strange guttural sounds emanating from it, I knew this was going to be good. The theatre was in fact laid out – with more comfortable seats – like the original shop in Whitechapel where Joseph was displayed. I quickly found myself, like those Victorian viewers, desperately waiting for the curtain to be pulled back and the freak within to be revealed. This led to a really uncomfortable personal realisation that despite everything I know and believe about equality and diversity I was as eager as those ‘unenlightened’ people, spending their pennies in a bygone age, in my desire to gaze on this stranger’s misfortune. This led me to questioning the motives of all the characters. Was showman Tom Norman better or worse than the good Dr Treves? Norman was at least honest about his intentions. e would look after Joseph – in his own way – because Joseph was his meal ticket. Treves on the other hand, had noble aspirations to protect Joseph, but showed him off to his colleagues, prodding and poking him without concern about the pain he caused, to advance his own career and social standing. Out of everyone Joseph met in this production, only Mr Goldby (Adam Trussell), Gamekeeper to Lady Knightly (Ami Sayers) and his innocent daughter, Elizabeth (Katie Turner) seemed to be disinterested in Joseph’s deformities and treat him as the real human he was with no thought of showing him off to their friends – unlike their rather nasty mistress who wouldn’t have him in the house but sent her guests to the Gamekeeper’s cottage to view him.
Writer/Director Steve Green has produced a truly wonderful, if at times uncomfortable play to experience – this isn’t one you just watch. It is impossible not to get emotionally connected with Joseph and the other characters in his life. The script and staging are of course responsible for this with some marvellous verbal interactions between Treves and Joseph for example. However, this is a real actor’s play and the entire cast, three of them playing multiple roles, delivered something so special it left me speechless at the end. I’m going to single out Katie Turner at this point for one of the most amazing pieces of acting I have seen in a long time, going from a truly horrendous and highly upsetting scene as Nurse Huxley almost immediately to the sweet young Elizabeth Goldby welcoming Joseph into her father’s home with an acceptance that can only come from the innocence of youth.
Turning to Daniel Chrisostomou, his performance as Joseph was truly awesome. There is no specialist make-up to illustrate Joseph’s physical condition, instead a wire frame covers the outside leaving the inner man naked and visible to the audience who, without words, get to see and feel what it is to be Joseph – to experience through Daniel’s movement, and especially his eyes, the pain, fear and acceptance that are Joseph’s life. The scene where Joseph encounters the countryside with layer upon layer of experience being built up as he goes through the woods and meadows is impossible to describe but a memory to be treasured. Daniel delivers something so special and so intense – particularly the beautiful and poignant final scene – that for the first time, I honestly didn’t want to run into the actor in the bar afterwards and find out he’s just a normal chap.
This production was mesmerising from start to finish and stayed with me on the journey home as I started questioning how much humanity has progressed since Joseph was first exhibited. These days, there are no freak shows where people with deformities are displayed for the entertainment of the masses, because that is unacceptable behaviour in the 21st Century. Or are there? How many people watch the ‘X Factor’ or ‘BGT’ to see the next big thing in pop going through the process? Viewing figures always drop off after the auditions; filled with the sad the deluded and those we spend Monday morning laughing about. And, if you want to take it to an extreme, do people tune in to ‘Embarrassing Bodies’ because they are interested in the medical conditions discussed in the programme or because they are hoping to be shocked and thrilled by a deformed piece of human flesh? This excellent play can’t help but make you ask these questions.
Only at the Brockley Jack until the 21st February, “Elephant Man” is one of the must-see shows of the year so far and if I could give it 10 stars I would but even that wouldn’t be enough praise for such an amazing, compelling, thought provoking and unforgettable production.
Review by Terry Eastham
adapted and presented by Fourth Monkey
Inspired by the iconic true story, and following a sell-out national tour, the tale of the elephant man returns in a stunning new stage adaptation. With numerous award nominations, Elephant Man tells the true story of the fabled Joseph Merrick in a production that is ‘profoundly unforgettable’, ‘uplifting’, and ‘beautiful’.
Abandoned as a child, the horribly deformed Joseph Merrick survives as a freak-show attraction and medical marvel. But as he sits silently under the stares of London’s high society, it is the world around him that appears grotesque.
If I could reach form pole to pole
Or grasp the ocean with my span
I must be measured by my soul
The mind’s the standard of the man.
Nominated for an Amnesty Freedom of Expression Award. ‘Storytelling at it’s best” A Younger Theatre. “Unforgettable” Broadway Baby.
Cast: Daniel Chrisostomou, Scott McGarrick, Ami Sayers, Adam Trussell, Katherine Turner
Tues 3 February to Sat 21 February 2015 at 7.45pm
Tickets: £14, £11 concessions (suitable for 14+)
The Brockley Jack Studio Theatre