In Depth

Bradley Cooper 'terrific' as The Elephant Man

Critics hail Cooper's 'bold' performance as Broadway hit transfers to London... but it's a shame about the play

The hit Broadway production of The Elephant Man has transferred to London's West End and once again its star Bradley Cooper has impressed the critics. But Bernard Pomerance's 1977 play has fared less well, with some critics calling it slow and dated.

The plot is based on the life story of a severely deformed Victorian man, Joseph Merrick (called John Merrick in the play), and his journey from despised freak show act to medical curiosity and Victorian celebrity. The play first opened at the Hampstead Theatre in London in 1977, and went on to become a Broadway hit at the time.

It has had numerous revivals and radio and television adaptations since then, though David Lynch's celebrated 1980 movie The Elephant Man was not based on Pomerance's play.

In this revival at the Theatre Royal, Cooper, best known for movie roles in American Sniper, The Hangover and Silver Linings Playbook, plays the title role alongside Alessandro Nivola as Merrick's surgeon saviour Dr Treves, and Patricia Clarkson as celebrated Victorian actress Mrs Kendal  - but it's Cooper who steals the show.

"There is really only one reason for seeing this imported Broadway smash hit, but it's a good one: Bradley Cooper," says Dominic Maxwell in The Times. He says audiences familiar with the "smoothly confident" film star should "get ready to see a stage actor of boldness and imagination".

Cooper's decision to wear no make-up and to appear alongside actual photos of the severely deformed Merrick initially seems like a misstep, says Maxwell, but the "physically extreme yet adroitly witty" Cooper makes it work. "It's pure make-believe, pure acting, and he keeps it up for the next two hours." 

Cooper is "terrific", agrees Paul Taylor in The Independent. In a "wonderfully humane yet wholly un-sanctimonious performance" Cooper captures Merrick's painstakingly correct speech, "his gentleness, questioning humour, and romantic spirit", he says.

The Guardian's Michael Billington joins the chorus of approval for Cooper, calling him "a fine actor", but says the play is less satisfactory. It attacks Victorian society for treating Merrick as a show, says Billington, "when we ourselves are invited to see his story as a theatrical spectacle".

In the Daily Telegraph, Ben Lawrence also criticizes Pomerance's play. It's a sluggish production, says Lawrence, but "the other insurmountable problem is that the play is simply not very good". Lawrence says that if there weren't such as perpetual interest in the subject matter and if the play didn't offer such meaty roles, "it would never have survived into the 21st century".

Still, Lawrence admits the play was a smash hit on Broadway, and Cooper's performance will no doubt give a boost to its West End success.

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