11 July 2021: If you think you know the story of The Elephant Man, then think again. A stunning production, part of Brighton Fringe 2021, The Elephant In The Room, brings it to life.
The Elephant In The Room
As the UK was heading towards the furore of the Euro finals later in the day, I grabbed my small camera, a coffee and headed into Brighton for a calming afternoon of live theatre at The Warren. This show was part of The Brighton Festival. Thankfully many of the COVID 19 restrictions had been lifted, and I had a ticket for the socially distanced performance. I was lucky to get a seat as every performance of this performance had sold out. We followed the maze of the one way directions and found the venue. The staff were brilliant and it was painless to get in with the QR scans allowing everyone in. We were guided to our designated spaced seating.
It was quirky in there, the walls created out of oil drums, a super big stage, fake grass – brilliant! And of course corrugated sheeting overhead to protect us from the elements. I have been to a few fringe events, and photographed events at the Edinburgh Fringe. I have to say considering the problems offered by the pandemic, this was slick and efficient and hats off to the site teams and management.
The Elephant Man.
This was a new musical celebrating the life of Joseph Merrick – AKA The Elephant Man. Joseph Carey Merrick, often erroneously called John Merrick, and yes, I thought his name was John! I think that may be down to the movie. He was an English man known for having severe deformities. He was first exhibited at a freak show as the “Elephant Man”, and then went to live at the London Hospital after he met Frederick Treves, subsequently becoming well known in London society. And so this performance had already corrected me and it had not even started. He was born in August 1862, and died in April 1890, in Whitechapel, London.
This new production was written by Alan Perry and Bradley Tullett. In 2012 the two writers started work to combine a lifelong fascination with the story of Joseph with a narrative and music. Both writers have a rich musical heritage, both had been in the band Too Many Crooks. They began to work on the songs and narrative that form the basis of the performance. Its a musical show.
We were introduced to Joseph and his earlier life. Much of which I was not aware of. His childhood was pretty rough and he ended up working in a workhouse. Now I am not going to go through the whole story as I guess many of you know it, but also, there are new facts tucked in there and I am not giving away any spoilers!
The staging was superb, and even the odd waft of ye olde London town smog would drift across the stage adding to the atmosphere. The costumes looked great, and backed with really authentic props. An incredible amount of attention to detail had gone into this, and it paid off. Then of course the musical numbers, the performance quickly packed in two songs Sticks and Stones and the very moving Beautiful Soul.
Joseph’s life was revealed slowly but surely through the spoken word and song. The music was superb, and it was a delight to enjoy the talents of all the cast members who all had a chance to shine throughout the performance.
The relationship between Madge and Frederick and their love of Joseph was beautifully portrayed and opened up another area of Joseph’s life not known to many. There was some beautiful vocals from these two. Stunning. It was totally believable watching the cast re-enacting this extraordinary life. This was shaping up to be a highly memorable experience.
We were introduced to Dr Reginald Tuckett, who introduced Treves to the Elephant Man. As his life progressed the section of Joseph’s story, many are more familiar with, was told. Showmen and talent scouts took charge of Merricks life. The musical numbers were created to express the thoughts and feelings that Joseph may have gone through from his troubled childhood until his death. The attention to detail I have mentioned but it was carried out in exquisite detail, even down to a replica of the cardboard model of a church constructed by Merrick for Mrs Madge Kendal. This was really accurate.
It became clear just as the story progressed just how important Frederick Treves and Madge were in Merricks life. Merrick wanted to live life on his own terms and these individuals helped him achieve just that. The musical numbers swirled around the venue, some heartbreaking, some joyous but all meaningful. What we were being treated to was a wonderful example of storytelling, mixed with song.
Through his life, Merrick clearly had many encounters a few colourful characters, and some unsavoury. This new musical reaches out to the audience, and we learn more about Merrick, and how he accepted the challenges and about his earlier difficult life, and that fragility of the man behind the mask. Life had not been kind to Merrick he faced a lot of challenges and exclusion, however, we learn that he decides not to be defined by all of this and eventually was able to make a life for himself as best he could.
The show we enjoyed, has many qualities worthy of a musical, the songs and script supported by an incredible cast. Frankie Davison is perfect as Merrick. He had a great voice. Due to the brilliant costume I doubt I would recognise him if he sat next to me on the bus! He carried the role off perfectly. Today was sadly the last run of this performance for the Brighton Fringe.
The performance was directed by Amie Shouler. She graduated from the London school of Musical Theatre in 2020. The Elephant in the Room is Amie’s directorial debut. I cant wait to see what this talented director has lined up next. It was great to chat with her after the show as she explained some of the hurdles faced due to the pandemic, but she was hopeful that The Elephant In The Room has a few more dates in the UK.
It was a wonderfully educational, entertaining and emotional performance. Bravo! Take a bow.
A thoroughly recommended show, for any age really. If you think you know Merricks story, then think again… Its Joseph, not John!
Beauty’s Only Skin Deep.
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