Initial misgivings about a tall, muscular Hollywood heartthrob playing a short, deformed Englishman on stage are forgotten after seeing Bradley Cooper’s remarkable turn as Joseph Merrick in The Elephant Man.
The Tony Award-nominated drama comes to London’s Theatre Royal, Haymarket, after a stint on Broadway where it enjoyed a record-breaking run.
Cooper’s part, in what started life as a fringe production, has been played by an eclectic company of actors including Bruce Davison, David Bowie and Mark Hamill.
But would a play written by an American, with an American cast, really cut the mustard on an English stage?
Judging from the nightly standing ovations it has received since opening to previews in May, the answer is a resounding yes.
We first see Cooper naked, bar a grubby loincloth (sorry, ladies), standing beside a screen showing images of the real, grossly deformed, Joseph Merrick as his friend and patron, surgeon Freddie Treves, describes the man’s appalling medical condition.
Slowly Cooper transforms himself, not with prosthetics or make-up, but by twisting and contorting his body to grotesque angles. It’s particularly fascinating to watch him fold his fingers over each other to create Merrick’s club hand.
Scott Ellis’s chamber production allows Treves to narrate the story of his relationship with Merrick as though he’s giving a talk to a medical symposium.
And the story is as much about the ambitious Treves, who first saw Merrick in an East London freak show, as it is about The Elephant Man.
Treves examined Merrick and later, with the help of Francis Carr Gomm, the chairman of the London Hospital committee, arranged for him to live in the hospital grounds.
It was the first and only real home Merrick had but it became a better class of freak show with high society visiting him to gawp instead of the working classes.
Treves was later knighted and became one of the country’s top surgeons while Joseph Merrick, inexplicably called John in the play, died of asphyxia aged just 28.
Cooper’s performance is heartfelt and, surprisingly, full of humour, while Alessandro Nivola, presents us with a compassionate and dedicated Treves.
But what lets the play down is the weakness of Bernard Pomerance’s badly researched script, which takes liberties with the true story, the language (with American colloquialisms that would never have been spoken by Victorians), Nivola’s sloppy dress sense as a Victorian Englishman, and the accents.
Real life British actress Madge Kendal is played as an American by Patricia Clarkson while minor actors struggle with English as a second language.
Joseph Merrick was born in Leicester and lived in the East End slums while Treves hailed from Dorset, yet both Cooper and the charismatic Nivola sound educated at Eton.
But this is an extraordinary performance by Bradley Cooper and shows that he is an accomplished stage actor.
The Elephant Man runs until August 8.
The Elephant Man
Hollywood heartthrob and action man, Bradley Cooper, gives an extraordinary performance as Joseph Merrick, in the award-nominated drama, The Elephant Man, at Theatre Royal, Haymarket.