Cambridge's leading amateur theatre production company

Established 1981

The Elephant Man
 by Bernard Pomerance   directed by Nick Warburton

The ADC Theatre, Cambridge, March 2001

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A Review of The Elephant Man
by Julie Petrucci

'I am not an animal!' cries John Merrick after being cornered in a London train station. This famous line from "The Elephant Man," the 1980 film, can't be found in Bernard Pomerance's stage drama of the same name. Also missing from his version is the elaborate re-creation of Merrick's deformed body, a hallmark of the film. Pomerance instead requires that the lead actor enact Merrick's deformity by contorting his body and altering his speech.

'The Elephant Man' is the moving portrayal of John Merrick; hideously deformed at birth by a rare disease and later used as a freak attraction by nineteenth-century circus owners, Merrick is befriended by a young doctor named Treves, who provides him with a home at the London hospital. Director Nick warburton's handling of Merrick was true to the text, as James Dowson showed in a performance which demonstrated that even the simple act of walking across a room was sheer physical anguish to Merrick. At first, Merrick's speech was soft and muffled. Once Merrick feels at home at the hospital, his diction becomes more articulate and easier to understand, but spoken as a labour of great effort. After meeting one of London's great beauties, he becomes feted by London's high society, ostensibly coming to see the wonderful model of the church viewed from the window of his room which he is making. More exploitation followed his fame, which grew even as his deformity and illness increased.

Tony Broscomb's setting was extremely clever being a stage within a stage, reminding us at all times that we too were 'watchers'. In the opening scenes, when Merrick is displayed to an audience of doctors as if he were a specimen under a microscope, multiple photos of the actual John Merrick were projected on a screen, whilst James Dowson, as Merrick, stood behind a partition, his twisted body lurching. Yet it was the vivid images of the real Merrick that stayed with us for the entire production.

Although it worked perfectly well at the beginning of the play with cast front of house as fairground barkers; actors entering from front of house and, at times, speaking their lines from the aisle, distracted the attention from the stage. It is scripted that characters stepping into the action at the beginning of a scene recite a 'chapter heading' this added nothing to the text nor moved the story on. In fact it broke one's concentration while you worked out what had been said.

James Dowson gave a totally believable, first class performance as Merrick. One that will stay long in the memory. Nick warburton as Treves, also gave an accomplished performance; even more impressive given the fact he was standing in (at the eleventh hour) for Guy Holmeswho was unable to appear due to a severe back injury. Although he was working with a script he appeared so at ease with the role that one soon forgot he was doing so. It says much for Nick both as an actor and as a director that, though losing a leading actor must have been a major blow, at no point did it appear to affect the quality of the production. Tricia Peroni as Mrs. Kendall, the famed stage actress who befriends Merrick and visits him daily, gave a tender, emotive performance. The scenes between Kendall and Merrick were palpable.

David Foyle made a villainous Ross, the selfish and hateful owner of the freak show, and Derek Brown's Carr-Gomm, head of the London Hospital, was quiet, dignified and a proper gent. Most of the rest of cast members are called upon to portray multiple roles character changes that were handled seamlessly.

This was a thought provoking production that left one with an uncomfortable feeling of being no better than those who paid to see the real John Merrick.