Elephant Man musical hits all the wrong notes

Elephant Man musical hits all the wrong notes

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The Marvellous Elephant Man The Musical
September 4
Until October 1
Spiegeltent Festival Garden, Moore Park


Will we never let Joseph Merrick rest? His story – born in Britain in the 1860s, Merrick was nicknamed “the Elephant Man” due to his physical disabilities – has remained one of public fascination. His short life was split between workhouses, “freak” shows, and the Royal London Hospital, and his skeleton remains on private display.

In contemporary times, we’ve begun to grapple with our collective legacy of silencing or exploiting disabled voices in art. In 2016, actor Bradley Cooper faced controversy for “cripping up” (when an able-bodied actor plays a disabled character) to play Merrick. A year later, Melbourne’s Malthouse tried a fresh approach to the story with disabled actor Daniel Monks as Merrick – a breath of progress.

The Marvellous Elephant Man features bright, direct tunes.Credit: Dominic Lorrimer

Now, though, there’s The Marvellous Elephant Man the Musical, which takes sensitivity and boots it out the door in favour of an irreverent, prurient and indiscriminately offensive comedy that is far more interested in punchlines than dignity.

Granted, Merrick (Ben Clark) is positioned as something of a romantic hero; he falls for a nurse named Hope (Annelise Hall). Neither is given much of an inner life (Merrick tells us he isn’t an animal but rarely has the chance to tell us more about himself; Hope just wants to marry someone she loves).

Treves (Kanen Breen), Merrick’s doctor, is so panto-villainous the audience began to boo him on opening night. (You would, too, after the groan-worthy refrain “you might not think it’s relevant/but he was sired by an elephant”).

Though the show, co-directed by Chris H. F. Mitchell and Guy Masterson, does attempt empathy for Merrick, it frequently undermines itself by being unable to resist a lowest common denominator joke about elephants – referencing tusks, fear of mice, or eating plants.

It also fetishises Merrick’s genitals, an old ableist trope, and turns the women into oversexualised objects. Empathy, it seems, can only go so far.

While the broadly performed and bawdy musical (with bright, direct tunes and hacky lyrics by Sarah and Jayan Nandagopan and Marc Lucchesi) earned raucous bouts of laughter on opening night from a good portion of the audience, the once-packed Spiegeltent was noticeably emptier after interval, with walkouts continuing through the second act.

Many members of the show’s creative team have lived experience with disability, and in a fact sheet explain they are processing their experiences of ableism, sexism, and racism through jokes. The problem is that The Marvellous Elephant Man leaves audiences on the other side of the joke. Every time they use Merrick as a punchline, it hurts.

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