The smaller of the Trafalgar Studios’ performance spaces, with its red bench seating and intimate dimensions, seems tailor-made for bringing interesting, edgy work to the West End.
And, with recent productions of early work by Neil LaBute (Bash: Latterday Plays) and unearthed Tennessee Williams’ shorts (the triple-bill Lovely and Misfit) that’s exactly what it has been doing. Which makes this solid but conventional staging of Bernard Pomerance’s 1977 play an odd choice to next fill the space.
Pomerance’s most famous play tells the story of the short life of Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, a story that has already been memorably filmed by David Lynch with John Hurt in the title role.
Born with an undiagnosed condition that caused his limbs and head to be affected by large and deforming growths of bone and skin, Merrick was abandoned as a child and forced to work in freak shows to earn a living. After being conned out of what little money he had in Europe, Merrick returned to England penniless.
He was rescued from this pitiful existance by Frederick Treves, a surgeon who worked at the London Hospital. He was able to bend the rules so Merrick could be a permanent resident with his own private room. Here he soon became a society favourite, spending his time in the company of artists and aristocrats (though arguably still on display even if in more sophisticated circumstances).
In Lynch’s film, Hurt played Merrick buried under a mound of facial prosthetics. In Bruce Guthrie’s production, no such attempt is made to replicate the man’s considerable deformities; instead they are solely conveyed through the contorted movement and speech of actor Marc Pickering. It would be an easy role to overplay, but Pickering’s performance is a subtle and touching one, coupling Merrick’s desire for acceptance with his poignant awareness of what can never be.
Ayden Callaghan is equally restrained as the stern but caring Treves. It’s a potentially cold role but he makes it work, conveying the character’s inner moral turmoil better than a rather contrived and tiresome dream sequence can. The supporting cast, playing numerous roles, are all strong, with Jennifer Taylor particularly engaging as the actress who forms a friendship with Merrick.
The production struggles somewhat in the small space. Some plays can stand a simple, stripped down staging, but this felt rather lacking in the atmosphere department. It feels cramped and awkward, in need of opening out.
Merrick’s story is a fascinating and enduring one and Guthrie’s production, at a compact 90 minutes, engages the audience in an unflashy fashion, avoiding cheap sentiment and instead creating genuine pathos. It’s undoubtedly a solid revival, but the intimate setting ends up working against it.