Edinburgh Fringe Review: The Elephant Man

I’ve seen three of Fourth Monkey repertory shows now, and this is my favourite. The Elephant Man is a real story about Joseph Merrick, a man cursed with a severe disfigurement. Joseph is an incredibly challenging role to take on and Daniel Chrisostomou in the role is absolutely stunning – he is an actor that will take the world by storm one day.

A lot is made of Joseph’s eyes as being beautiful – they’re the emotive windows to a sad soul, and the thing which proves him to be a human, not a monster. And somehow, Chrisostomou captures that. His contorted physicality is something to behold and his vocal prowess impossible. His breathing is feral and haggard, yet his voice angelic. He is the perfect vehicle for Steven Green and David Ledger’s original script. The dialogue is tender and delivered by a company that keenly feel every word they say. Joseph’s monologue will rip your heart out. It’s a painful show to watch.

There is a solitary scene where a horde of aristocrats and socialites ogle Joseph, and the heightened characterisation just feels at odds with the naturalism of Chrisostomou, disrupting an established rhythm. Elsewhere however, attacking with the ensemble moulds those around Joseph to seem more like monsters than he is. They make your skin crawl, be it with their sly remarks or blatant horror, and their presence paces the production in contrast to Joseph’s slow decline.

Green and Ledger’s script is intelligent and detailed, capturing the era, and with Pablo Fernandez Baz’s muted lighting, is reminiscent of the film and makes you feel as if you’re looking into the past. Indeed there’s something subtle about Green’s direction of The Elephant Man. There is a fine line between earnest and two faced feelings, and the interplay between Joseph and the Doctor Frederick Treves (played with truthful engagement by Grant Russell) in particular is heartwarming.

At the same time, there are scenes in which no words say a great deal more. I could watch Chrisostomou’s flickering eyes or Russell studying him for hours. Green’s direction of this talented cast has done Joseph Merrick’s story justice. It really does feel like a play born from truth. I thought the show might be let down by a prosthetic nightmare glued to Joseph to represent his disfigurement, but the way it’s done is genius. A wire structure is moulded into protruding, awkward shapes and encages Chrisostomou’s body. When he finally sheds this contraption and stands tall, something so profoundly uplifting sweeps across the auditorium. The Elephant Man is a piece of innovative storytelling at its best; this show in particular shows off not only how good the cast are, but how lucky they are to have such talented writers, costumers, technicians etc. around them. It gets you right there, and isn’t that reaction what’s so magical about theatre?

**** – 4/5 stars

The Elephant Man plays at theSpace on Niddry Street as part of the Edinburgh Festival until 24 August. For more information and tickets, see the Edinburgh Fringe website.