The Elephant Man on show in Welwyn Garden City

PUBLISHED: 11:29 20 February 2011 | UPDATED: 11:41 20 February 2011

The Elephant Man poster

The Elephant Man poster

John Davies

THE Elephant Man comes to a Welwyn Garden City theatre next week.

A scene from the Barn Theatre's production of The Elephant Man

THE true and tragic tale of John Merrick still fascinates and disgusts people today.

Exploited in a 19th century London fairground, Merrick notoriously became known as ‘The Elephant Man’ because of his hideously deformed body.

Actor John Hurt was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of the limping, lisping and grotesque Merrick in David Lynch’s classic 1980 film The Elephant Man.

Merrick’s story also formed the comedic backdrop to The Tall Guy, featuring Jeff Goldblum, Rowan Atkinson and Emma Thompson.

The Elephant Man free talks at The Barn Theatre

THERE will be three free talks during The Elephant Man’s run at The Barn Theatre.

* Director Rosemary Bianchi discusses in the clubroom illusions of deformity and staging the carnivalesque before the performance on Tuesday, March 1 at 7.30pm.

* Dr Cindy Lawford relates John Merrick’s life story in rich detail on Wednesday, March 2 at 7.30pm in the clubroom.

* Cast members will stay on stage to answer audience questions after the performance on Thursday, March 3.

Audiences at the Barn Theatre in Welwyn Garden City won’t get that bizarre musical stage version of The Elephant Man, but Bernard Pomerance’s poignant play from Friday, February 25 to Saturday, March 5.

Directed by Rosemary Bianchi, this is the story of Merrick, treated first as a fairground freak and later exploited more subtly by Victorian society.

Most people have seen images of John Merrick – who was actually called Joseph, but this was not confirmed until a year after Pomerance’s play was first staged.

He was born in 1862 with severe deformities which grew worse as he got older; his skin appeared thick and lumpy, he developed an enlargement of the lips and a bony lump grew on his forehead.

A scene from the Barn Theatre's production of The Elephant Man

In his early 20s, Merrick voluntarily and deliberately became a “human curiosity” with a travelling show, mainly to escape the workhouse where he had been since aged 17 and to earn a living for himself.

He eventually met surgeon Frederick Treves in London, who invited Merrick to be examined and photographed.

After a period of time on tour in Europe, he returned to London to live the rest of his life at the London Hospital until his death in 1890, aged just 27.

In his final years at the hospital, Merrick was frequently visited by the ladies and gentlemen of Victorian London society.

An official diagnosis of his deformities was never made while he was alive and has even now not been fully established.

The Elephant Man, by American playwright Pomerance, was first staged in 1979 and focuses mostly on Merrick’s final years at the London Hospital.

The production is notable for the fact that no prosthetic make-up is used on the actor who plays Merrick, a facet of the play that perhaps seeks to question the very basic nature of what it is that categorises a person as a “freak”.

Evening shows at the Handside Lane theatre begin at 8pm, although there is also a Sunday matinee performance at 2.30pm.

Tickets are £10 each, but group and school discounts are also available. They can be bought in person at Campus West or online.

Alternatively, telephone the Barn box office on 01707 324300 after 7pm on the day of the performance for late availability enquiries, or turn up at the theatre in person, although availability is not guaranteed.

To check performance times, go to the Barn’s website, see link.

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