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  • Writer's pictureAlex First

The Marvellous Elephant Man: The Musical, at Chapel Off Chapel - 120 minutes, plus interval

Updated: Apr 23, 2023

Nominated for eight Oscars, David Lynch’s 1980 dramatic biographical film The Elephant Man – featuring Anthony Hopkins, John Hurt, Anne Bancroft and John Gielgud – remains seared into my consciousness.

Now a clever and creative group of writers and composers (Marc Lucchesi, Sarah Nandagopan and Jayan Nandagopan) has taken the story’s essence, twisted it and turned it into a highly entertaining and engaging musical dramedy.

Photos by Paul Scott Photography

There is a great deal of genius about this show.

The story remains moving and meaningful, but it is also risqué and irreverent.

John Merrick (Ben Clark) is a human “freak”, abandoned by his mother – a prostitute – and exploited for his physical deformity.

He is a circus show oddity, pointed to and laughed at.

“Rescued” by eminent surgeon Dr Treves (Kanen Breen), the “good doctor’s” intent is anything but laudable.

Hope comes by way of a nurse of that name (Annnelise Hall), who sees behind the physical and enables Merrick’s inner self to bloom.

The Marvellous Elephant Man: The Musical works magnificently on so many levels.

It is engaging and ebullient. It is dramatic and dastardly. It is bawdy and belligerent.

Musically, being melodic and lyrical, it ticks all the boxes. I found myself heavily drawn to and invested in the tunes. A sure sign of my involvement was wanting to buy an album featuring all the songs, a number of which would undoubtedly become ear worms.

The stagecraft, vocal strength and saxophonist credentials of Marc Lucchesi – who plays the ringmaster, among several diverse characters – make him an instant hit. He is a major drawcard and has much to do with the success of this piece.

Kanen Breen drips with supercilious villainy, milking his stage persona for all it is worth. As Dr Treves, arrogance and entitlement are his middle names. Breen brings back a bygone era when patrons used to boo, hiss and throw rotten fruit at actors portraying dastardly roles that pushed their buttons.

Annelise Hall has a sweet, mellifluous voice. She channels wholesome, angelic and temperamentally sound. She personifies beauty and love in their purest forms.

Ben Clark doesn’t need prosthetics to win his way into our hearts. Vocally and artistically, he excels from his opening number. He readily projects vulnerability, fear and substance.

They, together with a talented ensemble and accomplished band, breathe life anew into a story of oppression and exile, life and love.

With dramaturgy by Guy Masterson and strong direction from Christopher Mitchell and Masterson, Eden Read’s choreography – which includes dance sequences – is a treat.

The spotlighting is a feature of this production, but the staging at Chapel Off Chapel could be improved.

The band is slightly elevated, but apart from a platform at the same height stage right – which is used by the actors in certain scenes – much of the action takes place at ground level.

That may not be a problem in another theatre, but in the higher rows at this venue it means on occasion not seeing the legs of the performers.

Let me put that into context though. In an otherwise superb show, this amounts to but a small, if somewhat frustrating, gripe.

The Marvellous Elephant Man: The Musical is playing at Chapel Off Chapel until 23rd April and is highly appealing.

It is a fresh Australian work, about which we should be mighty proud.

The show deserves a bigger stage and a worldwide audience.


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