Theatre Review: The Real and Imagined History of the Elephant Man

Words: Ian C Douglas
Thursday 21 September 2023
reading time: min, words

Ian C Douglas reviews The Real and Imagined History of the Elephant Man... 

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Something remarkable happened at the Playhouse last night. Six young people walked on stage, seized a popular modern myth and cast it anew. In doing so, they brought tears to the eyes of the audience. This was a night that will come to be seen as a landmark event in British theatre.

The Elephant Man is a famous figure in history, whose heartrending biography captures the public imagination time and time again. However, has his story been filtered through the perspectives of the able-bodied? Does this give a one-sided account of his life?  

Well, the cast and crew in this production were determined to change that and reclaim Joseph Merrick as an icon in the long battle to end ableism. And with the performers all Deaf, disabled and/or neurodivergent, plus over 50% of the creative and support team also Deaf, disabled and/or neurodivergent, this was the dream team to achieve that goal. And achieve it they did.

Tom Wright’s excellent script begins with Joseph’s childhood in Leicester’s slums. The industrial revolution is in full swing. Civilisation may be evolving at breakneck speed, but it comes with a cost: the factory fodder, the millions who slave away in the mills and mines only to stagger wearily home to their shacks.

Industrialization is a key theme here, first in Leicester and Nottingham then, in Act Two, London. How Joseph Merrick was a product of that era, how the city and the body become interchangeable metaphors, how the rush to mass production warped lives.

In a world bored with itself, he is a curious thing (to paraphrase the script)

The script follows Joseph’s misadventures, as he discovers his condition attracts and repels the punters wherever he goes. "In a world bored with itself, he is a curious thing" (to paraphrase the script). Abuse at the hands of circus showmen leads to a rescue. Then a new life follows as a medical peculiarity, housed in London Hospital and paraded before doctors as a living specimen. Is the hospital any less of a prison than the circus cage?

Joseph’s journey reaches its climax on snowy London streets with his final assertion of selfhood, independence, rights and humanity. So, a script packed with insight into the disempowerment of disabled people by the able, even when well-intentioned. A breathtaking accomplishment of dialogue and scene action.     

The entire cast give superb performances and really know how to hold an audience in the palm of their collective hands. But Zak Ford-Williams, as Jospeh Merrick, was simply sublime. No doubt a marvellous career awaits him. He transforms his body, without any prosthetic or mask, to capture Merrick’s disability as it worsens with age. Always with dignity and grace, he becomes the Elephant Man by sheer acting alone, right there in front of our eyes. A touch of magic!

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The unseen star of course is the director, Stephen Bailey, who gave Left Lion the head’s up on the production in his recent interview. His vision was a guiding force here. Really, this was a show bursting with up-and-coming talents.             

There was a buzz before the curtain rose. The audience knew this was going to be something special. Share in that buzz and spend some time in the company of the Elephant Man. You’ll be glad you did.  


The Real and Imagined History of the Elephant Man runs at the Playhouse from Wednesday Sept 20th to Saturday Oct 7th 2023.

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