Bradley Cooper Excels In Dated Elephant Man

By Stuart Black Last edited 38 months ago
Bradley Cooper Excels In Dated Elephant Man ★★★☆☆ 3

Bradley Cooper (John Merrick), Alessandro Nivola (Frederick Treves), Patricia Clarkson (Mrs Kendal). Photo by Joan Marcus.

Londonist Rating: ★★★☆☆

Celebrity-led West End theatre is often underwhelming but let’s say up front that American actor Bradley Cooper is by far the best thing about this stiff retelling of the story of John Merrick, aka The Elephant Man.

You could even say it was an inspired idea to cast such a freakishly famous actor in the role so we can compare and contrast the deformed Victorian with the Hollywood heart-throb — both exotic public curiosities, albeit at opposite ends of the celebrity spectrum.

Cooper wears neither make-up nor prosthetics and relies on his acting skill alone. It's a risky choice but one he gets away with thanks to an early scene in which his character’s condition is described, allowing Cooper to metamorphosise, one limb at a time, as he takes on the ailments his doctor mentions. From then on, with one arm contorted and a dropped hip and lip, it's hard to see the actor as anyone else.

Cooper’s physical performance is an appropriately painful-looking study in asymmetry, which contrasts sometimes too well with Scott Ellis's overly ordered production. The director's positioning of the actors, for example, seems intended to evoke a rigidly formal Victorian society, which is not only a cliche but one that has the frequent effect of hampering the drama. Alessandro Nivola as Merrick’s doctor Frederick Treves, seems particularly ill at ease with his twitchy fingers contradicting his ramrod straight bearing. Such tics are distracting rather than suggestive of complexity and when Nivola gets a chance to break down weeping with the emotional strain of looking after Merrick he seems much more comfortable.

But the tears are a problem too. There's an old adage that says if your characters cry then the audience won't and so it proves here. By the time the play reaches its climax, the actors have spent too much of the feeling in the room and as a result we do not absorb the full tragic force of this unfortunate man’s life and death. Too often the production sails into mawkishness as it tries to amp up Bernard Pomerance's dated script, which was hugely successful in the seventies but now seems to lack dynamism. When compared with David Lynch's majestic 1980 film, it's clear that not enough is made of the central trio of Merrick, Treves and the circus sideshow owner who claims ownership of his ‘freak’.

More interesting however is Pomerance's use of Mrs Kendal, a fruity Shakespearean actress hired by Treves to befriend Merrick in his isolation ward. The part is played here at full tilt by Patricia Clarkson and the play really takes off whenever she swishes on stage. The conversation Kendal has with Merrick about Romeo and Juliet is the highlight of the play, with the latter deftly proving how Romeo did not love Juliet, the former blithely moaning about her lacklustre leading men. This and a startling, though not entirely warranted late scene in which she uncorsets for him suggests another version of the story focussing solely on their relationship which might feel fresher and perhaps therefore more satisfying.

The Elephant Man runs at the Theatre Royal Haymarket until 8 August. Tickets £15-108. Londonist saw this play on a complimentary ticket.

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Last Updated 01 June 2015