The Elephant Man, Barn Theatre, Southwick: Intelligent, sympathetic portrayal by Southwick Players

Many hours of research have gone into Southwick Players’ production of The Elephant Man – and it shows.

Working on a story based on real people can be a challenge, especially when it involves actions and words from a different period of time, when attitudes were different, but the team has done its homework and the cast endeavours to deliver an intelligent, sympathetic portrayal of Joseph Merrick, The Elephant Man, and the people surrounding him.

Trefor Levins has the task of conveying The Elephant Man without prosthetic make-up, as required by Bernard Pomerance’s play. Deformities in his body are shown one by one during a scene where a lecture is given on his anatomy. His hand clenches, his leg bends, his foot lifts and his face contorts, giving him the stance he has to endeavour to maintain throughout the evening.

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While others are treating Merrick like an animal, Trefor shows the man behind the mask, or sack in this case. We see him as a person, not the hideous star of the freak show.

The Southwick Players cast for The Elephant Man

Where make-up does come into play, however, is with the Pin Heads and here it is cleverly done to suggest deformities. Louise Yeo, Charlotte Anne Atkinson and Zoe Edden do a marvellous job, involving the audience from the start by sneaking around the bar area, giggling and running away before the bell has rung.

With the help of movement director Dena Lague, they have created characters that are totally believable and very effective throughout.

Their involvement early on brings the audience into their world and the greeting by a carnival barker, played by Gary Cook, followed by our entrance through the Freak Show curtain, takes us deeper.

The set is very effective, evoking Victorian London, and the curtains, in particular, are cleverly done.

Tim Ingram gives an excellent performance as Ross, the manager of the freak show, and Adam McRae gives us an interesting contrast as Frederick Treves, the doctor who helps Merrick but later realises he has put him in a place where he has become another kind of attraction.

Our sympathies lie always with Merrick but we, too, are left to question our values, as, far example, we cannot help but laugh at the antics of the Pin Heads, but should we be laughing at them?

It is very cleverly done and was well received on opening night at The Barn Theatre yesterday, in front of a packed audience.