Fourth Monkey theatre group are impossible to ignore this Fringe with an impressive total of six shows on offer. If this production of ‘Elephant Man’ is anything to go by, they’re a company that should be taken very seriously. Skilfully executed and flawlessly acted, the company present the life of Joseph Merrick, a man born with severe deformities. They tackle this with great boldness and sensitivity in a production that manages to be both moving and, at times, quite funny.
Whilst booming carnival music plays in the background, Merrick is initially shown caught up in the chaos around him, surrounded by grotesque characters who mock him mercilessly. Scenes like this, in which Merrick is depicted as being at the centre of a freak-show, were powerfully disturbing and the spectacle of it all was quite upsetting to watch. This was aided by the closeness of the seats to the stage, which creates an intimate atmosphere and forces us to become complicit with the action.
The cast is uniformly excellent, giving precise and thoughtful performances with clear and infallible diction. Ultimately, it’s Daniel Chrisostomou’s performance as Merrick that steals the show. He gave a subtle performance, utilising his body in a way that made him an undeniably physical presence at first. When Chrisostomou spoke for the first time his voice was startling; he brought a humanity and charm to the character that was impossible not to invest in emotionally.
The contraption Chrisostomou wears is a rather clever way of simulating the deformity, restricting his movement, while still allowing the audience to clearly see him act. Whilst it does require a stretch of the imagination, it’s a subtle and really quite beautiful way of representing Merrick’s deformity. Physically, Chrisostomou is incredibly convincing and even simple movements such as attempting to put on a suit are given an intense emotional investment.
It didn’t quite bring a tear to my eye, but it’s certainly a poignant, sensitively handled version of Merrick’s story with some beautifully nuanced acting from Chrisostomou. The ending is also very moving and it’s at this point that the real significance of the costume choice becomes clear. The group demonstrate moments of inventiveness in staging throughout, but it’s the acting itself that really shines. Take some tissues with you, just incase.