The Elephant Man Review

The Plot

Based on the real life of Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man is the story of a 19th Century man who scrapes a tragic living on the sordid Victorian freak show circuit. When a renowned doctor takes Merrick under his care he is astonished by the man’s brilliant intelligence, unshakable faith and his resounding desire for love and understanding.  He introduces Merrick to a beautiful actress and a complex friendship blossoms among the trio, as they struggle to protect Merrick form a world of questionable intentions.

The Good

Hollywood star Bradley Cooper has already won significant acclaim for his Broadway portrayal of Joseph Merrick. Bringing his unique performance to the West End, Cooper continues to enshrine himself as one of the best leading mean of his generation.

Forgoing the obvious options for elaborate make up and prosthetics, Cooper instead uses only a series of self-inflicted physical contortions to transform his handsome appearance into the pained disfigurement of The Elephant Man. It’s a consistently impressive and skilled piece of acting, which only serves to make his emotional and vocal performance more credible and arresting.

Through a mask of facial grimaces and slurred speech, Cooper portrays Merrick as a man who is left both vulnerably naïve and bravely insightful by the terrible physical afflictions he lives with and the reactions of others to them. His soft spoken voice conveys a gentle charisma beneath a supposedly monstrous exterior. Though perhaps the highest compliment possible is that Cooper manages to make audience utterly forget his Hollywood star status as he entirely become Merrick .

Patricia Clarkson is an intelligently cast choice as Mrs Kendall, the famous actress won over by Merrick’s sincere sweet nature. Having a well-recognised face in the role certainly helps to give credence to her as bone fide diva. But Clarkson’s genuine talents for portraying fragility and empathy are even greater assets. It’s the combination of Cooper and Clarkson that gives the play its true heart.

Alessandro Nivola  also does a fine job as Dr Treves, the well-meaning surgeon who rescues Merrick, only to increasingly struggle with his ultimate inability to save him. It’s a functional but important role, representing the obvious desire of audiences to save Merrick.

Overall a strong supporting cast is consistently improved by sharing the stage with Cooper’s captivating and accomplished star turn. The play blends moments of humour and optimism into the otherwise tragic tale of Merrick’s troubled existence. It’s  poignant and memorable experience for audiences.

The Bad

The life and tragic demise of Joseph Merrick has been very well documented, particularly through the classic 1980s Oscar nominated David Lynch film. Merrick is such an iconic figure and so symbolic of the dark human fascination with disfigurement that some may feel overly familiar with his plight. Those familiar with the high profile film version may also find it hard to avoid comparisons.

In particular while Bradley Cooper uses an impressive array of body contortions to portray Merrick’s physical afflictions, it’s tough not to compare this to the memorably dramatic make up that transformed John Hurt on screen. It’s a brave choice not to use any make up to transform Cooper’s otherwise gorgeous appearance for the role. It does work surprisingly well thanks to his flawless skill and physical commitment, though some people may find their curiosity for physical strangeness less satisfied.

The Ugly Truth

The Elephant Man is by turns, tragic and surprisingly amusing. A sensational star turn from Hollywood superstar Bradley Cooper is worth the admission price alone and makes this production essential viewing during its limited West End run.

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