Obvious comparisons can be drawn between the fascination which Victorians had for freak shows and the modern day obsession with Hollywood movie stars. In the 1880s, John Merrick, the title character of Bernard Pomerance’s play, drew the masses to grubby funfair tents to stare disbelievingly at his grotesque deformities and then he moved upwards to become the darling of high society, whose members were equally intrigued, but in a slightly more refined way. Hollywood has turned out few bigger names in the last decade than Bradley Cooper, star of many critically acclaimed and commercially successful films. Huge crowds might gather in Leicester Square to gawp at his appearance for a premiere, but now he can be seen in a more civilised (and probably drier) setting just around the corner by anyone prepared to cough up for a ticket at West End prices and pay £10 for a programme (justify that please!). Defying the suggestion that movie stars are superhuman, Mr Cooper shows that he is in fact made of just flesh, blood and bone and he is actually not at all bad, or rather he is as good as Pomerance’s somewhat creaky play allows him to be. In David Lynch’s 1980 film of this story, John Hurt had to give his performance whilst buried in tons of prosthetics, but, in Pomerance’s stage version, we see Merrick as the human being behind the disfiguration, Cooper distorting his face and body and straining to speak in an affected English upper class accent. He gives Merrick dignity, but Pomerance does not overcome the character’s problem with articulation, not finding a way to express his inner thoughts to the audience. As a result, the surgeon, Frederick Treves becomes the play’s more interesting character, a scientist in the post-Darwin era, struggling to find a moral code to equate with his beliefs. Alessandro Nivola gives a compelling performance as Treves, but this production’s star turn comes from the wonderful Patricia Clarkson as the actress Mrs Kendall who befriends Merrick. This character is the polar opposite of Treves in her certainty that moral conventions are there to be defied and Clarkson, giving her both the classiness of a society lady and the sauciness of a mischievous tart, lights up the stage with her every appearance. London theatre needs to see her again, often. Director Scott Ellis’s production, transferred more or less intact from its Broadway run, is conventional and efficient, the simple set designs by Timothy R Mackabee ensuring that the focus stays where it needs to be – on the actors. However, the play itself still falls well short of classic status.
Performance date: 4 June 2015