There aren’t many plays that come with a health warning for the lead. “No one with any history of back trouble should attempt the part of Merrick as contorted. Anyone playing the part of Merrick should be advised to consult a physician about the problems of sustaining any unnatural or twisted position,” wrote playwright Bernard Pomerance in the preface to 1977’s The Elephant Man.
Clearly Bradley Cooper is feeling pretty limber then, as the US actor will be playing Joseph Merrick (named John in the script), the famed Victorian sideshow-freak-turned-medical-curiosity, when a revival of Pomerance’s play – and its full US cast – transfers from Broadway to London’s West End this month. What’s more, he’s doing it without the tub of Play-Doh John Hurt slapped on for David Lynch’s 1977 movie: this is neurofibromatosis and Proteus syndrome (diagnosis still disputed!) portrayed by acting chutzpah alone.
It might seem like a highbrow leap for an actor who’s best known for movies, and often big brawny ones like last year’s American Sniper about celebrated Navy Seal Chris Kyle. But actually, Merrick’s predicament – a man trying to assimilate into a society in which he has become a point of interest, and for the wrong reasons – has some parallels to Kyle’s. Reports out of New York have it that Cooper’s performance is a triumph. Let’s hope he’s brought his chiropractor over, too.
The Elephant Man, 19 May to 8 August, Theatre Royal Haymarket, London SW1, elephantmanlondon.com