first night

The Elephant Man

Callum Kenny enjoys an evening of philanthropists and freaks with CTC's 'The Elephant Man'


‘The Elephant Man’ is an exploration of human manipulation of the ‘other.’ Kate Barton’s latest offering showed a world of commodified relationships in which human dignity is often the lowest priority. It is certainly thought-provoking, moving and at times brilliant: what we have come to expect from CTC, but occasionally lacked some polish which might have helped realise the phenomenal potential it clearly has as a piece of theatre.

George Rexstrew gave a very solid performance as Dr. Frederick Treves. In particular, his moments of introspection were handled very sensitively, and the dual sides of his nature as a philanthropist and simultaneous exploiter were explored convincingly. This was certainly a finely-balanced presentation of Treves. Perhaps Rexstrew lacked the weight of age and authority which is necessary to give the part real gravitas but overall it was a fine performance. Will Throp, equally, was a highly believable and very watchable Gomm. His mannerisms and movements were expertly nuanced to reflect his older age, and as a result, he commanded a real presence on the stage. In this case, it is also crucial to praise Keeley Smith for her highly realistic make-up, which was among the best I have seen in Durham.

The stand-out performance, however, is understandably Hugh Train. The part of ‘the Elephant Man’ John Merrick is an absolute marathon. Train was equally grotesque and sensitive, manipulating his body and face to reflect Merrick’s abnormalities without appearing pantomime. The initial transformation of his appearance was mesmerising; he became unrecognisable. The immersion required to pull off this demanding role is evident to an audience member and Train committed totally to a complete alteration in movement, voice and mannerism. His Merrick was pathetic and yet sympathetic, and the interaction between Train and Olivia Race, who played a very credible Mrs. Kendal, was very touching. Barton calls ‘The Elephant Man’ a story of “truth and humanity,” and her direction of Train was impeccable in achieving such an image for her play; her handling of big themes was not patronising or superficial, but highly subtle and sophisticated.

Castle’s Great Hall is an impressive location which certainly lends an air of authenticity to such a production. Set in the eighteen-eighties, this choice might appear obvious. However, it did not feel as though the location enhanced the performance, or that it was specifically chosen for any particular reason. As such, this choice felt somewhat gimmicky, as opposed to being an indispensible element of the play. Particularly during those scenes set in the squalid and dingy circus, the imposing and stately paintings which framed the performance seemed incompatible with the action.

In addition, there was also a general lack of finesse to the aesthetic; the props (such as the writing desk) were a little scruffy, and the very modern bottle of Famous Grouse did not befit the time period. Of course, this did not in any way hamper my enjoyment of The Elephant Man, but more careful attention to detail might have elevated the performance above that of student theatre. The employment of a projector, inelegantly covered by some wooden slats, however, did seem somewhat out of place, and was a jarring presence among the three-piece suits and sepia posters adorning the flats.

Having said this, these were minor points, and the lighting and sound contributed well to the overall performance. The scene changes were slick and efficient, an element which was necessary when working with a script that was at times episodic. The audience was not left waiting for long, uncomfortable pauses, which encouraged the development of the action. A nice touch from Barton was the choice of music played between scenes, which maintained the feeling of undercurrent malevolence. The cast clearly were well-trained in entrances and exits, which created a sense of professionalism. Despite some initial rushing of lines which can clearly be attributed to first-night jitters, all the actors were an absolute credit to Barton’s vision, and must be applauded for their efforts in bringing such an ambitious piece of theatre to life.

‘The Elephant Man’ is a good piece of theatre which with a little more attention will be great.  It certainly has all the potential to be a phenomenally memorable play, and I am sure by final night it will be. 

24 January 2015

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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