Sunday 24 September 2023

The Real and Imagined History of The Elephant Man

 Nottingham Playhouse

23rd September 2023, matinee

Ladies and gentlemen, examine your soul

The story of Joseph Merrick, the disfigured man from 19th century Leicester now thought to have had Proteus Syndrome, is well known by now. Or, at least, so people think. On stage alone, the 1977 play by Bernard Pomerance has starred the likes of David Bowie and Bradley Cooper, making it as much a spectacle that audiences flock to as the Victorian freakshows of which Merrick was the centre. In Pomerance’s play we’re told Merrick ‘exposes himself to crowds who gape and yawp’. The crowds may gape and yawp but to say Merrick exposed himself implies he played an active and willing part. Tom Wright’s play, which is receiving its European premiere at the Nottingham Playhouse (the play has previously been staged in Australia in 2017), challenges those assumptions, presenting a fuller picture of Merrick’s life from Leicester workhouses to a London hospital. Led by a cast comprising of disabled, deaf and neurodivergent actors, the story has been triumphantly reclaimed allowing us to see it through a modern, more inclusive lens.

The first act takes us on a tour of Merrick’s early years in the Midlands. Simon Kenny’s design introduces us to industrial England. Metal structures crunch above the stage, Jai Morjaria’s lighting shines through the fog, and a large crate highlights imagery of entrapment. We see scenes from Merrick’s childhood in Leicester. As he grows up his dad chastises him, telling him people hate difference. In ‘a world of sameness’ where machines don’t allow for any irregularities, Merrick doesn’t fit society’s mould. There’s a pleasing descriptive poetry to Wight’s text. In one early scene Merrick’s mother, who dies whilst he’s still young, remembers a circus that came to town. Reminiscing over the fear and sorrow she felt seeing an elephant for the first time, its liquid eye on its mountain of a body, there’s a pathos in how she foreshadows what becomes of her son.

After being kicked out of the workhouses, Merrick winds up in travelling circuses before being robbed by his manager. As Merrick, Zak Ford-Williams gives a physical and delicate performance. It’s a revelatory piece of casting (by casting director Christopher Worrall), helping to illuminate the play’s themes and helps to strip the story of its images of grotesqueness that have previously been valorised. The rest of the ensemble cast also give strong performances. Annabelle Davis (in her professional stage debut) plays a multitude of characters from impoverished workers to circus barkers. And Nadia Nadarajah is excellent as the nurse who later befriends Merrick.

The second act focuses on Merrick’s later years confined to a basement room under the care of surgeon Frederick Treves, this shift in the play marked by Kenny’s more fully realised design. But the theme of entrapment is still clear: high, murky windows and looming walls surround the stage. Treves, often credited for treating Merrick and forming a close friendship with him, doesn’t fare so well here. Indeed, many of the perceptions of Merrick have been influenced by Treves’ written accounts. But, as director Stephen Bailey points out in a programme note, these contain inaccuracies, biases and largely focus on Merrick’s physical attributes rather than the person. Treves (Tim Pritchett) treats Joseph (whom he calls John) as a medical marvel, a subject to speak about as if he’s not a real, feeling person in the room with him. A clever design touch here sees Treves’ medical examination echo the circus advertising board from the first act. One of the play’s intentions seems to be to give Merrick’s earlier years more focus to give him more of a voice, but I’m not fully convinced this is achieved. The play’s second half, set nearly wholly in the hospital, is longer than the first and Merrick struggling to speak in his later years provides a dramaturgical problem. But this shouldn’t detract from what it does achieve, namely opening up the question of who Merrick was, and reflecting on how stories are told and who gets to tell them.

Bailey was the 2022 recipient of the Royal Theatrical Support Trust’s Sir Peter Hall Directorial Award. Previously won by Nancy Medina (Two Trains Running) and Anthony Almeida (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), the prize gives emerging directors the opportunity to produce work in mid-scale regional theatres. Bailey’s production is assured: they embrace the poetry of Wright’s text, give the story space to breathe, and put confidence in their cast to draw on their own experiences. There are some ideas though, for instance giving Killian Thomas Lefevre’s narrator character an electric guitar, which don’t seem fully realised. But on the whole Bailey clearly tackles the piece with sensitivity and imagination.

The Real and Imagined History of The Elephant Man is currently playing at Nottingham Playhouse until 7th October, followed by a short tour to Blackpool’s Grand Theatre and the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry. For further information please visit

Annabelle Davis, Zak Ford-Williams and Nadia Nadarajah in The Real and Imagined History of The Elephant Man. Credit: Marc Brenner.

Thursday 21 September 2023


 Curve, Leicester

20th September, 2023

C’est la vie

Metamorphosis is perhaps just as well-known for its stage history as it is for Franz Kafka’s 1915 novella. The peculiar story of Gregor Samsa whose daily routine is interrupted when he wakes to find himself turned into a bug has long been associated with practitioners like Brecht and Artaud, making it a popular text for students. Steven Berkoff’s landmark adaptation in 1969 has cast a long shadow over the piece – even I studied it at A Level 40 years later. Thankfully, Frantic Assembly (in a co-production with Curve, Theatre Royal Plymouth, MAST Mayflower Studios and Lyric Hammersmith Theatre) have transformed the piece for a new generation in an adaptation by the poet and playwright Lemn Sissay. In typical Frantic Assembly style, Scott Graham fuses movement, language, lighting and sound in a startling production which makes the familiar strange and the strange familiar.

‘My name’s Mr Samsa and I love fabric’, our protagonist beams as he wakes up each day. A slave to the drudgery of his work routine, it takes all of Gregor’s strength to summon the energy to drag himself to work each morning. But still, he extends a hand and beams ‘My name’s Mr Samsa and I love fabric’. We see this repeated several times, each morning slightly more difficult than the last. The toil of Gregor’s life working to pay off the debt is made clear. It’s a funny line, befitting of a strange play. After hearing it so many times, it prompts us to think how his routine and job are so closely and depressingly interwoven with his identity. Each time we see this play out, we notice something new each time. His slow transformation has started into something more bug-like (although, cleverly, this is never explicit). His rehearsed handshakes (part of his daily performance as an important businessman) start to become more tense, his head movements twitchier, his limbs less reliable. Soon enough he’s crawling on the floor in search of his briefcase. ‘Fabric’, he mumbles as he picks it up, his work so ingrained on his mind. Felipe Pacheco gives an incredibly physical performance filled with detailed idiosyncrasies as Gregor: every muscle from the tips of his fingers to his toes are engaged. His voice work is also notable: the epitome of stifled, British optimism morphing into more animalistic cries as his desperation intensifies.

At first, his metamorphosis is something he resists and is able to hide. His family (Troy Glasgow and Louise Mai Newberry) are incredibly proud of his big business deals, initially unaware of what’s going on until the Chief Clerk (a commanding Joe Layton) arrives. A slavedriver and blind to what’s going on, the Chief Clerk issues preposterous unsympathetic proclamations like ‘You were a good person and now this disrespectful display’. When he bursts into room to discover Gregor, his total lack of empathy leads him to grabbing the nearest chair to swat him. I thought it was a nice touch that the stripes on his pinstripe suit are horizontal just to emphasise his ridiculousness (the costumes are by Becky Gunstone). Despite the extremes of the story, Sissay has a remarkable ability to make us reflect on our own world. So succumbed to his misery, Gregor resigns to the fact that he ‘will wake with a natural tiredness… that is the nature of mornings’. But what’s striking is that all this seems normal. Sissay gives us a wake-up call to the Kafkaesque nightmare to which we can easily succumb. It provides a commentary on an overworked, cruel society. But as Gregor loses his sense of self behind his bedroom door, I also found it to be a striking exploration on mental health crises. The play reaches even more profound heights in the second act as the Lodger (also Layton) ponders society’s greed. In any other situation, ‘detached is to be unmoored or unhinged’. But a ‘detached home is the pinnacle of success’.

The play (and in particular Sissay’s version) has a timeless quality to it. The setting is possibly 1950s London, but such is the universal nature of the themes there’s no clear specificity of time or place. It could easily be now. Jon Bausor’s set design is deceptive. What at first seems a well lived-in bedroom, imposing and solid as you walk in the auditorium, is not to be trusted. The bed can make figures appear and disappear; the walls are cloth which gives them movements as if the room itself is breathing; the coving is an opportunity for Gregor to cling on; the light and ceiling rose is used as a swing. The ceiling itself is stained around the edges, perhaps from time or perhaps from the ink of Ian William Galloway’s 1950s-style adverts which are projected onto them. The bedroom becomes a playground on which almost-acrobatic movement is achieved.

Whether Gregor is being attacked with chairs or is hanging upside down from the corner, Graham’s production is one of memorable images, thought-provoking ideas and Sissay’s fierce poetry. ‘Met by everyone… remembered by no one. I am done with it all’. In a system which crushes those who struggle, it’s also a timely reminder of the greater need for understanding and empathy.

Metamorphosis plays at Curve Leicester until 23rd September followed by a UK tour until 27th January. It then plays a season at the Lyric Hammersmith Theatre from 2nd February, 2024. For more information please visit


Frantic Assembly's Metamorphosis. Credit: Tristram Kenton