DORSET THEATRE REVIEWS
This play by Bernard Pomerance premiered in London on 7th November 1977. The story is based on the life of Joseph (John) Merrick who is known for his extreme deformity. I expect we all remember the film when Merrick was portrayed by John Hurt, who, I believe, spent hours in makeup. The play does not call for makeup but relies on the actor letting the audience imagine the deformity from his physical portrayal.
All the cast were perfection itself with everyone giving their best performances.
The play was enhanced by the Sound, Lighting, Costumes and the scene changes. All of which were excellent. As was the lone cellist (Caroline Pugh). The use of the back projection helped the story along.
Having said all that I must just mention Linsey O’Neill as Mrs Kendal. Her facial expressions as she was told of Merrick and her bravery in the nude scene were second to none.
Simon Langford as Frederick Treves was another performance which I cannot praise enough.
However the award of the evening must go to Matt Barrett as Merrick. I really do not know how he managed to play such a difficult part and get the audience believing in his deformity. A performance of the highest standard. He never lost his character even during the scene changes.
Praise must also go to Director Deanna Langford for a thought provoking production.
Further performances are tonight Thursday 10th, Friday 11th and Saturday 12th October at 7.30pm. I would urge you not to miss it.
SceneOne Plus review by John Newth
When I tell people how much I enjoy reviewing local am dram for Scene One Plus, a common response is “But you must see some stinkers!” Well, maybe, but they are balanced by memorable evenings that astonish and delight, evenings which reveal just how much talent can be found on the local amateur stage. Evenings, in fact, like the one I spent at Castle Players’ The Elephant Man.
It was a particular pleasure to see such an outstanding production in Lytchett Matravers, which you might expect to be infertile ground for such quality: it is a comparatively small catchment area, the village hall is pretty basic (though with an impressive lighting rig), and audiences are usually numbered in tens rather than hundreds. Not surprisingly (Ed: in current financial climates), Castle Players have struggled at times, and a couple of years ago were within a whisker of going under, but the village realised what it would be losing and there was an influx of new members whose enthusiasm and (to judge by this production) talent should secure the future of the company.
Because the central figure is an outsider who is well-placed to question established values, the play can explore many – perhaps too many – themes, including science (especially Darwinism) versus religion, Victorian attitudes to sex and, of course, the treatment of people who differ from the norm: we are persuaded that morally, there is nothing to choose between the motives of the crowd who pay money to see the elephant man in a freak show, of the mob who set on him at Liverpool Street Station and of the aristocrats who keep up with fashion by seeking friendship with him. Most strikingly, he shows those close to him that beneath their ultimately unimportant physical differences, they suffer disfigurements which may not be as obvious as his but are just as real; at one point, Frederick Treves, the elephant man’s doctor and protector, cries, “Like his condition, which I make no sense of, I make no sense of mine.”
The production is outstanding because the two key performances are outstanding. As Treves, Simon Langford has to be several very different characters: the analytical doctor, the patronising Victorian gentleman, the enlightened observer, the sympathetic friend and, ultimately, the vulnerable everyman. He carries all these off with a confident authority that commands the stage whenever he is on it. If an actor has the intelligence and stagecraft to listen to the other actors and play off them apparently spontaneously, it lifts his performance to a different level; Simon has those gifts in spades.
Every production of the play must accept that there is no point in using complicated prostheses to replicate the physical attributes of the elephant man, John Merrick, nor in trying to imitate his almost incomprehensible diction. This puts huge demands on the acting ability of the person playing the part, and Matt Barrett is not found wanting. Just the opposite: he gives a performance that is both technically accomplished and profoundly moving. His twisted posture and hesitant delivery say more than elaborate make-up or distorted speech ever could. Unlike most amateur actors, he is not afraid of silence, and his long – sometimes painfully long – pauses are as eloquent as hundreds of words. In the 19th century, physical ‘freaks’ were not allowed dignity, strength, intellect, personality or emotional intelligence, but Matt’s John Merrick displays all of those qualities in an unforgettable portrayal of a man whose “head is so big because it is so full of dreams”, and his long final scene, solo and almost silent, is spellbinding.
There is little room left to do justice to a very strong supporting cast, but Linsey O’Neill deserves mention for a lovely, brave performance as Mrs Kendal, the actress who is the only person who really understands John Merrick because she does so on an emotional level. Their scenes together are some of the most powerful.
Director Deanna Langford’s use of a bare set, minimal props, a complicated lighting plot, slides projected onto the backcloth and cello interludes (admirably played by Caroline Pugh) to cover scene changes is so sure-footed that it is hard to believe that this is only the second play she has ever directed. May there be many more.
We don’t award stars in Scene One reviews. If we did, then of the 201 plays I have reviewed, only a handful would have earned five stars. This is one of them. Catch it until 12 October at 7.30pm each evening.
John Newth, SceneOnePlus