The great joy of Fringe Festivals is the eclecticism of the programming, gathering together diverse works from avant-garde, artistically risk taking productions that are challenging ideas or theatrical forms to independent shows looking to develop a larger, popular audience that will catapult them to success.
This bawdy romp of an original Australian musical, now playing at the Sydney Fringe Festival’s Spiegeltent, falls into the second category. It is a big, raucous, messy pub show that went down a treat with audiences at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, The Adelaide Fringe and with the opening night audience in Sydney.
They say, “Big notes win votes”, and many in the opening night crowd cheered and whooped at every high note and key change, just like the studio audience at Australian Idol. The audience loved the saucy “Carry on Doctor” humour. No double entendre was too crass for them to applaud, all the while noisily chatting with their friends. Nothing wrong with that. After all, people also talked and drank through Shakespeare’s plays at the Old Globe.
There is little point wishing for more nuance in the characters, clarity in the direction, a credible narrative arc or subtlety in the humour. This is a good, old-fashioned, vulgar, vaudevillian tent show, replete with an extremely well performed villain, Dr. Frederick Treves, deliciously played by Kanen Breen. Annalise Hall as Nurse Hope and Ben Clark – whose beautiful voice and honest, empathetic presence was just right for John Merrick – are lovely romantic leads. Rounding off the Music Hall cast is the Ring Master/Panto Dame, played by Marc Lucchesi.
The show is a labour of love and has been 15 years in development by Jayan Nandagopan, Sarah Nandagopan and Marc Lucchesi. The trio were interested in exploring the themes of disability and marginalisation through the story of John Merrick. Bandied between circus and medical freak shows, and suffering outrageous abuse and exploitation because of his physical deformity, Merrick became known as The Elephant Man in Victorian England. David Lynch indelibly captured these concerns in his deeply poignant film on the same subject.
There are some good numbers in the show, and some stinkers, but no one in the audience seemed to mind. Every song sounds strangely familiar, referencing many songs from the musical theatre songbook. Everything from The Mikado, Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods, Godspell and Little Shop of Horrors (I could go on) is part of the homage.
The strongest similarity in style is to The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Both share a decadent aesthetic, but while The Rocky Horror Picture Show brimmed with irony and self-awareness, The Marvellous Elephant Man shamelessly operates at the level of bawdy schoolboy humour.
There are many good singers and dancers in the show. But with messy direction and choreography that repetitively turns to crotch-grabbing humour, the minor players don’t get much chance to shine or show their range. Perhaps it is a pity that the original intention of addressing marginalisation has been lost. The Merrick character starts sympathetically but becomes so cartoonish towards the end that we don’t really care. That is a shame because Ben Clark has the potential to give this show some real heart and depth, and it wouldn’t take many changes to achieve this. But, then again, no one on opening night seemed to mind much, and neither, I suspect, will future audiences. They will probably be having too much fun.
2023 Sydney Fringe Festival
The Marvellous Elephant Man
Co-directors Guy Masterson and Chris Mitchell
Venue: Sydney Spiegeltent | Entertainment Quarter, 122 Lang Rd, Moore Park NSW
Dates: 1 September - 1 October 2023