Review: Hasland Theatre Company’s compelling version of The Elephant Man

Steve Cowley (playing John Merrick), Nicky Beards (Mrs Kendal) and Rob Dean (Frederick Treves), left to right, in The Elephant Man.
Steve Cowley (playing John Merrick), Nicky Beards (Mrs Kendal) and Rob Dean (Frederick Treves), left to right, in The Elephant Man.
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A gripping play inspired by a real-life human curiosity is as disturbing and compelling as the disfigured and disabled people paraded in the freak shows of Victorian England.

The Elephant Man is a must-see production which enhances Hasland Theatre Company’s reputation for producing high-quality drama and a feather in the cap of its director Heather Davies.

What makes it disturbing is that the viewer questions their own actions and feels ashamed at having stared at, or gossiped about, people who don’t match their ideas of normal. The play points up the message that a physically hideous body can conceal a brilliant mind which is capable of analysing classical literature as well as any university professor.

What makes it compelling is the performance of Steve Cowley who brings the hideously disfigured John Merrick back to life, without the aid of prosthetics.

As a fine, upstanding man at the start of the play, Steve contorts his body and face to match the projected image and verbal description of The Elephant Man. He turns his right hand inward to form a useless fist, lolls his head on one side and contorts his face into an uncomfortable expression. Between laboured speeches delivered with a deliberate speech impediment, his intakes of breath sound like he’s sucking up the spittle which was known to drip from Merrick’s mouth.

Rarely have I seen a performer inhabit a character as well as Steve does and he must surely be up for an award when the company take the play to Buxton Festival Fringe next month.

There’s great supporting performances from Rob Dean as the compassionate hospital physician Frederick Treves whose own shortcomings are exposed in Merrick’s nightmare, Nicky Beards playing the beautiful actress whose heart-warming compassion for the object of curiosity goes beyond acceptable behaviour, Ian Jones as the money-grabbing freak show boss who falls on hard times and Tom Bannister as the pompous hospital administrator.

Nicky Beards, Becky Parry and Lilly Beards give outstanding portrayals of mentally retarded sideshow spectacles in Belgium, overseen by Neil Beards in the guise of cruel circus-like ringmaster.

This must-see production of The Elephant Man runs at Hasland Playhouse until Saturday, June 28, and at the Buxton Festival Fringe on July 12 and 13.

GAY BOLTON