THE casting of Jamie Beddard, an actor who suffers from cerebral palsy, in the role of John Merrick The Elephant Man, has rather tended to overshadow this production of Bernard Pomerace’s stage interpretation of the tragic life of a man whose severe facial and body deformities made him a social outcast.
A severe critic of non-disabled actors portraying disabled characters, Jamie Beddard’s presence in the main role certainly highlighted the difficulties that actors suffering from any major disability face when trying to make their way in the acting profession.
On this occasion it was not Beddard’s physical disabilities or limited vocal range that caused any problems, but the decision, presumably reached with the director Lee Lyford, not to graft on, via makeup, those features that so frightened and revolted Merrick’s contemporaries that he was forced to exhibit himself as a freak in a sideshow in order to save himself from destitution. You quickly ignored the fact that Jamie Beddard moved around in an electric wheelchair, and with all the dialogue shown like operatic subtitles, there was no excuse for missing any of the lines. Showing some excellent sense of comedy timing, he injected a deal of much-needed humour into what in the main is a very bleak subject.
The early part of John Merrick’s life – rejected by parents, bullied in the workhouse and abused and abandoned by those who sought to make money out of exhibiting this “freak” – was played against Caitlin Abbott’s deceptively simple set of moving panels, aided greatly by Ziggy Jacobs-Wyburn’s often stark lighting and clever use of video images. Some of those images showed the terrible disfigurements that so repelled those who came into contact with “The Elephant Man”. The absence of those disfigurements on stage continually undercut the violent reactions of the rich and famous who came to visit Merrick once he had been rescued by Dr Frederick Treves, who saw past the wounded physical shell and set out to release the intelligent man trapped in that deformed body.
Alex Wilson, like the remainder of the cast still a student at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, brought great sincerity and a sense of an enquiring mind to Dr Treves, deeply upset that he did not have the knowledge to cure Merrick, a man who had become a friend.
Matching Dr Treves in understanding is the actress Madge Kendal (played with a true fresh spirit by Grianne O’Mahony), the lady who brings the great and the good to see John Merrick as a person, not a freak-show exhibit. The scene in which she strips in order to give Merrick his first and only sight of a naked woman, was delicately staged through a gauze curtain.
Among a series of well-drawn characters, Gerald Gyimah caught the eye as Carr-Gomm, the head of the London Hospital. You could equate him to the head of a NHS Hospital desperately juggling figures in order to keep the balance right between his hospital and the needs of its patients.
In introducing all the storylines and characters at the beginning – and wrapping them all up at the end – the production tends to slow down a little, but most of the blame for that probably lies at the author’s door rather than the production.