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.

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