Reviewed by Lauren Donikian
It’s not everyday you see a musical which starts with a trigger warning. However, the writers of The Marvellous Elephant Man seem self-aware enough to acknowledge that the some of the content in their show may be offensive to its audience. Based loosely on the life of Joseph Merrick, a disfigured man who appeared in freak shows in 19th Century London, this musical is Rocky Horror Picture Show meets an R18+ version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
This original Australian musical follows John Merrick, The Elephant Man as he is exploited by Dr Frederick Treves. Merrick, has been treated like an animal for most of his life, but finds comfort in Nurse Hope, the potential partner of Dr Treves. As Merrick shows more of himself, he becomes less of a freak and adored by the public, which threatens Dr Treves. An act of jealousy sets up a coming-of-age story for Merrick, who finds strength and courage in the arms of friends and gets his happily ever after. Or does he?
Co-directed by Guy Masterson and Christopher Mitchell, this 2 hour and 20-minute musical is filled with catchy songs written and composed by Sarah and Jayan Nandagopan and Marc Lucchesi, who also plays multiple roles throughout the performance. With simple props and lighting, it is hard to imagine the world that the story is written in. Even with the Spiegletent as the perfect backdrop, there were times when the blocking was off and viewers sitting on the sides missed what was happening. At times the band was overpowering and drowned out the singers which is unfortunate as there is some clever writing that unfortunately goes unheard. Ben Clark is a stand-out with his take on The Elephant Man as his voice soars over the music. He plays a cautious Merrick, but there are no concerns in regard to his vocal capability. He is joined by Annelise Hall who plays Nurse Hope, and the two of them harmonize well together. It should be mentioned that Halls encouragement of Clark in the second half of the performance is delightful to see and there is an obvious level of respect for his talent. Kanen Breen, plays Dr Treves the character we all love to hate and really lets himself go in the second half of the show. Allowing Treves to take over he is outrageous, has a cheeky snarl and towers over Clark which lends itself to his character of captor against Clarks captee. Lucchesi is a breath of fresh air and plays a multiple of characters with ease. Each is defined by an accent or costume and then to play the saxophone on top of that is further proof that he is a true artist.
I’ve got to admit, this is a tricky one for me to review. The first half is a little slow, and the second half feels rushed with a conclusion that seems too easy. The are moments of hilarity, my favourite involves a white sheet and trick lighting. I enjoy provocative humour but know that it is not for everyone. It is no denying that the cast are talented, but for a show based on a historical character that was exploited about his appearance, this Merrick has no visible signs of being different. Which I think takes you out of the story that is being told. Acknowledging that some of what is said is based on language of the period which can be offensive, there are times the wording seems too modern for the 19th century. That could be part of the fun of it, but again takes me out of the world being built. I did leave with a smile on my face and am still singing “The Elephant Man” at random moments throughout the day. There are moments that I thoroughly enjoyed, but if you are offended easily, then this musical is probably not for you. There is no denying that this musical has heart as big as well, an elephant and the message is clear that regardless of who you are or what you look like, you are allowed to take up space and be worthy of love. I like that.