The Elephant Man
Performed in the Unicorn Theatre 8 - 11 July 2015
by Bernard Pomerance
Abingdon Drama Club are renowned for attempting plays amateurs cannot possibly do, then showing us - "Oh yes they can!" But this show is a double coup: the play is only just beginning its West End run! The Director, Terry Atkinson not only got the play, but he found a most extraordinarily competent and innovative local team to bring it successfully to the intimate and atmospheric Unicorn Theatre.
A very small first night audience was privileged to witness this remarkable debut. Perhaps many were put off by the thought that our natural tendency towards voyeurism is an unhealthy trait. We can all be 'unhealthily curious' and dislike that in ourselves. It is true the real Joseph Merrick was forced to earn his living by putting his hideously deformed body into a Victorian freak show. It is also true that we still have not matured away from these less than desirable traits. Nevertheless Bernard Pomerance's play avoids voyeurism and sentimentality. Instead it presents the torture of a vulnerable human soul, within an ugly exterior shell as being no more nor less than those of us without such visually obvious handicaps. The characters Merrick encounters recognise this in varying degrees along a continuum which the audience can comfortably set themselves.
Atkinson does not allow the play to degenerate into mere parable, he keeps all his fine cast aware of their own relationship to Merrick. The play demands excellent performances all round and it gets them! Duncan Blagrove's task of portraying the eponymous hero is daunting yet he is fully in control of the distortions he presents. His calculated sustained acting enables the pain and ecstasy of his experience to fully inhabit our imagination. Tony Green, who plays the doctor who rescues him from the freak show is also well controlled and thoroughly credible. A scientific interest becomes personal and that trajectory of discovery pulls us all along. We identify with his emerging self discovery, the unpeeling of his prejudice and predisposition to patronage and see Merrick as a person; a person, furthermore to whom we can all relate.
The play asks so many relevant questions, as a reviewer I can only say - in absolute awe, 'It is more than worth the ticket price' - it's a 'Don't miss this!' play which stimulate and provoke further thought.
Mike Ward's imaginative settings and special effects are superbly blended with the action, enhancing the production to professional heights. Moreover the musical links are perfectly chosen to support the emotional journey invited by the playwright.
Only three more days.... Highly recommended!
Gwilym Scourfield - 8/7/2015
I was very pleased to accept an invitation to review Abingdon Drama Club’s latest production of the acclaimed drama – The Elephant Man – by Bernard Pomerance.
This was the true story of a Victorian gentleman, Joseph (John) Merrick, who being terribly disfigured from birth overcame his disabilities, to a certain extent, and transformed his life from being a ‘human curiosity’ in a travelling side-show to becoming a highly regarded and respected member of upper-class Victorian society in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The fact that this was a true story only added to the poignancy of the drama. Merrick’s troubled life was cut short at the age of 27 when complications associated with his deformities caused his untimely death on the 11th April 1890.
Merrick’s heart breaking and intensely moving story was brought vividly to life in this amazing production by ADC.
Michael Ward’s simple set design consisting of grey wooden panelling on three sides and a large projection screen suspended over the rear aspect was a master stroke. This screen was used to project the different locations of the scenes and some wonderful dream sequence montages. When Michael’s atmospheric lighting design was added the effect was quite breath-taking.
Director, Terry Atkinson, had assembled a talented cast to bring this harrowing story to, I’m sure, very appreciative audiences. I attended the matinee performance at which, sadly, the audience numbers were very low but this in no way diminished the impact of this drama – in fact I would go as far as to say I felt quite privileged to have been in that small group and to have felt even more ‘personally’ involved with the unfolding story.
The direction was simple yet inventive and Terry achieved some wonderfully powerful characterisations from his cast. The tiny Unicorn stage was used to good effect and entrances and exits were made smoothly and unobtrusively. Terry’s choice of music (from the 1980’s movie sound track The Elephant Man) was particularly haunting and added even more intensity to the theatrical experience. Characterisations were captured vividly and the costumes looked authentic and in keeping with the period of the piece.
The cast rose magnificently to the challenges this play posed but none more so than Duncan Blagrove who played the unfortunate Merrick. This was an outstandingly sensitive portrayal of a man with almost unbearable disfigurements yet who had wit, wisdom and humanity in spite of everything. This was one of the most moving and exceptional performances I have witnessed on any stage - amateur or professional. Duncan, with virtually no make-up and a walking stick, transformed into the Elephant Man before our eyes in a remarkable piece of character acting. His voice and demeanour were well maintained and when we briefly saw Merrick in a dream sequence or in his imagination - free from the burden of deformity - Duncan’s transitions were amazing. This was an outstanding performance from this versatile and talented actor.
Tony Green played Frederick Treves the aspiring young surgeon who befriends and effectively ‘rescues’ Merrick from his ‘human’ curiosity’ life of torture and allows him to live relatively peacefully within the safety of the walls of the London Hospital. This was another thought provoking performance. Tony’s portrayal of this sensitive yet brilliant mind was exceptional. Very good diction and use of the playing area. A restrained and moving performance.
Adam Blake gave an effective and authoritative performance as Carr Gomm the senior man in the medical relationship who while acknowledging the growing relationship between Treves and Merrick was still canny enough to use it to gain funding for his own interests. Good diction and stage presence made this a very strong portrayal.
Nigel Tate as Ross the exploitative and unpleasant owner of the side-show was very good. He gave us a very believable insight into the mind of a Victorian ‘wide boy’. Good clear diction and stage presence.
Jill Calvert gave a lovely cameo performance as Miss Sandwich the nurse who when charged with looking after Merrick and after saying there will not be a problem with his disfigurement promptly has hysterics when she sees him in the flesh. Well done!
Chris Kendrick as Bishop Walsham How gave a credible performance as a man of the cloth with a strong faith and genuine compassion for Merrick and his plight. Good diction and stage presence made this a strong performance.
The Pinheads were convincingly played by Kirsty Heffernan, Cordy Williams and Kaylee Corcoran. These fellow ‘curiosities’ were made even more grotesque by their startling make-up by Susi Dalton, Lin Crowley and Mary Hitchens. This trio of actresses made a very unsettling sight on stage. Their dream sequence interactions with Merrick were both beautifully moving and unnervingly scary! Well done to you all.
Rebecca Peberdy was outstanding as Mrs. Kendal the flamboyant and slightly eccentric actress who befriends Merrick. This was a most moving and thoughtful performance from this talented actress. There were some wonderfully touching moments with Merrick. Rebecca captured Mrs. Kendal’s thespian eccentricities to perfection.
Richard Wilson, Lee Orchard and Leon Witcomb appeared in various small but none-the-less important supporting roles and each gave a convincing characterisation of their various personas.
This was a gripping, moving and enthralling piece of theatre which will live on in my memory for a very long time. Many thanks to all those involved and I look forward to perhaps being invited to ADC’s next production for which I wish you good luck.
Rob Bertwistle - 11/7/2015