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Review: The Elephant Man (Bristol Old Vic)

Jamie Beddard stars in Bernard Pomerance's play about Joseph Merrick

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Jamie Beddard and the cast of The Elephant Man
© Mark Douet

Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot, Leonardo Di Caprio in What's Eating Gilbert Grape and Bradley Cooper in The Elephant Man. All terrific, award-laden performances but in this generation, non-disabled actors playing disabled characters is as problematic as 'blacking up' was for the generation of actors before it. In a recent article, actor Jamie Beddard talked of looking from afar at the industry, feeling excluded from the kind of roles that make a legacy and the kind of excuses he came up against as to why he couldn't play them.

Anyone who has seen Beddard performing, most recently in the National Theatre's Threepenny Opera, already knows that he is a charismatic stage presence and it is no surprise that he pulls off the role of Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man of Bernard Pomerance's play with real aplomb. This is a performance that thrums with a lifetime of an outsider looking in. Though we as a society have moved a long way from gawping at other in the sideshow, there is no doubt Beddard knows more than most about how much still needs to be improved. His speech, affected by cerebral palsy, sounds as though he is fighting through a violent case of hiccups, and his body occasionally rocks back as though he is omitting a hearty laugh before gently pushing back and continuing his train of thought.

Beddard lets us in on Merrick's subtleties, his impish humour, his terror and his joys. His body takes ownership of the space he's held aloft or upright, is stripped and then bathed by the hospital orderlies; he displays his disability out front and centre. It's as expressive a leading performance as I've seen at this theatre.


My main reservation comes with the play itself. Pomerance's piece is entertaining enough, skipping from event to event of a fascinating life fleetly, but it mostly feels solid rather than artful. In the second half when theatrical licence comes to play and we are treated to dream scenes and artful tableaux, the speechifying becomes wearying. It's all staged by Lee Lyford and rather tastefully, scored live by cellist Keith Tempest, but its slightly old-fashioned feel could do with a little more bite.

A collaboration between Bristol Old Vic, Beddard's company Diverse City and Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, nine of the graduating students take up the rest of the roles in the ensemble. It's Gráinne O'Mahony who makes the strongest impression as the actress who becomes charmed by Merrick. Her ethereal beauty may enchant Merrick but O'Mahony charts the journey her character takes well, from the initial flinch on coming face to face with him, to disrobing like Phryne in a moment he describes as the most beautiful in his life. There is also solid work from Alex Wilson as the doctor/mentor who tries to carve a life for his subject and Gerald Gyimah as the kindly chairman of the hospital where Merrick finds himself.

It's really Beddard's night though. It may be a small step in the diversity debate and one that should have come much earlier, but it is an important one. Directors and casting directors should be flocking to the Bristol Old Vic to rethink. Here is Beddard, centre stage and driving along this play as powerfully as any leading actor out there. It's a powerful opening up of what the theatre could and should be.