The Elephant Man

Theatre, West End
2 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

2 out of 5 stars

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Bradley Cooper stomps all over this flimsy play about disfigured Victorian John Merrick

I like Bradley Cooper. You probably like Bradley Cooper. And because we both like Bradley Cooper we can understand why he’d find it liberating to get away from the everyman roles that have made him a Hollywood A-lister and do something a little different on stage. But did it have to be ‘The Elephant Man’?

Bernard Pomerance’s play about the disfigured Victorian sideshow attraction-turned-society darling John Merrick was a big Broadway hit 35 years ago, famously accommodating David Bowie’s only major stage role. But it really hasn’t aged well. It’s a thin character study that moves at an unseemly clip – Merrick goes from stuttering enigma to articulate manchild in the space of about five minutes – and it tries to mask its lack of depth by lobbing in a scattershot barrage of existential questions at the end. It’s not a total dud. But it’s a superficial piece that crams too much into its slender running time.

Famously, the role of Merrick involves no prosthetics or make-up. But in Scott Ellis’s wholesale Broadway transfer, that barely matters as Cooper trowels on the mannerisms: ruined hips, sagging face, one useless arm, a constant slobber and a strangely plummy voice. It is a formidably committed piece of Acting-with-a-capital-A, and in the likely event you’ve come purely to gawp at Cooper you’ll go home happy. But it made me uneasy: opening with a scene in which the buff star theatrically adopts Merrick’s disabilities one by one, it’s an ostentatiously full-on performance – bordering on ‘Tropic Thunder’s mythical ‘full retard’ – that draws our attention to the skill of actor, not the humanity of the man he’s playing.

I can’t help wonder what the difference is between Victorians paying to be titillated by a grotesque and millennials paying to be titillated by a Hollywood actor playing a grotesque (except we’re paying more).

Though the Victoriana of Ellis’s production feels very undercooked, the all-American cast generally acquit themselves well, and there are good turns from Alessandro Nivola as Frederick Treves, the dashing doctor who rescues Merrick from the streets, and Patricia Clarkson as Mrs Kendal, the actor who develops a strange, wistful bond with the so-called ‘Elephant Man’.

But ultimately their restrained performances feel superflous: everything else here is just a sideshow to the Bradley Cooper experience.

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