When I tell people how much I enjoy reviewing local am dram for Scene One Plus, a common response is “But you must see some stinkers!” Well, maybe, but they are balanced by memorable evenings that astonish and delight, evenings which reveal just how much talent can be found on the local amateur stage. Evenings, in fact, like the one I spent at Castle Players’ The Elephant Man.
It was a particular pleasure to see such an outstanding production in Lytchett Matravers, which you might expect to be infertile ground for such quality: it is a comparatively small catchment area, the village hall is pretty basic (though with an impressive lighting rig), and audiences are usually numbered in tens rather than hundreds. Not surprisingly (Ed: in current financial climates), Castle Players have struggled at times, and a couple of years ago were within a whisker of going under, but the village realised what it would be losing and there was an influx of new members whose enthusiasm and (to judge by this production) talent should secure the future of the company.
Because the central figure is an outsider who is well-placed to question established values, the play can explore many – perhaps too many – themes, including science (especially Darwinism) versus religion, Victorian attitudes to sex and, of course, the treatment of people who differ from the norm: we are persuaded that morally, there is nothing to choose between the motives of the crowd who pay money to see the elephant man in a freak show, of the mob who set on him at Liverpool Street Station and of the aristocrats who keep up with fashion by seeking friendship with him. Most strikingly, he shows those close to him that beneath their ultimately unimportant physical differences, they suffer disfigurements which may not be as obvious as his but are just as real; at one point, Frederick Treves, the elephant man’s doctor and protector, cries, “Like his condition, which I make no sense of, I make no sense of mine.”
The production is outstanding because the two key performances are outstanding. As Treves, Simon Langford has to be several very different characters: the analytical doctor, the patronising Victorian gentleman, the enlightened observer, the sympathetic friend and, ultimately, the vulnerable everyman. He carries all these off with a confident authority that commands the stage whenever he is on it. If an actor has the intelligence and stagecraft to listen to the other actors and play off them apparently spontaneously, it lifts his performance to a different level; Simon has those gifts in spades.
Every production of the play must accept that there is no point in using complicated prostheses to replicate the physical attributes of the elephant man, John Merrick, nor in trying to imitate his almost incomprehensible diction. This puts huge demands on the acting ability of the person playing the part, and Matt Barrett is not found wanting. Just the opposite: he gives a performance that is both technically accomplished and profoundly moving. His twisted posture and hesitant delivery say more than elaborate make-up or distorted speech ever could. Unlike most amateur actors, he is not afraid of silence, and his long – sometimes painfully long – pauses are as eloquent as hundreds of words. In the 19th century, physical ‘freaks’ were not allowed dignity, strength, intellect, personality or emotional intelligence, but Matt’s John Merrick displays all of those qualities in an unforgettable portrayal of a man whose “head is so big because it is so full of dreams”, and his long final scene, solo and almost silent, is spellbinding.
There is little room left to do justice to a very strong supporting cast, but Linsey O’Neill deserves mention for a lovely, brave performance as Mrs Kendal, the actress who is the only person who really understands John Merrick because she does so on an emotional level. Their scenes together are some of the most powerful.
Director Deanna Langford’s use of a bare set, minimal props, a complicated lighting plot, slides projected onto the backcloth and cello interludes (admirably played by Caroline Pugh) to cover scene changes is so sure-footed that it is hard to believe that this is only the second play she has ever directed. May there be many more.
We don’t award stars in Scene One reviews. If we did, then of the 201 plays I have reviewed, only a handful would have earned five stars. This is one of them. Catch it until 12 October at 7.30pm each evening.