Musical review: The Marvellous Elephant Man – The Musical

An overhyped production that sadly does not live up to expectations.

It is Sydney’s turn to experience this entirely original new Australian musical after its sell-out seasons in Adelaide and Melbourne. It’s a brave, stylistic mash-up that has been billed as an ‘irreverent, remarkably inaccurate, cabaret musical spectacle’.  And yes, it is about that ‘I am not an animal’ Elephant Man – John Merrick of the hugely successful play and 1980 film that shot John Hurt to mega stardom. Although they do take liberties with the nature of his deformity.

The marketing campaign has been impressive. The hype and build-up for this production has been of the highest standard and the opening night hospitality was exemplary. But the focus on the marketing perhaps continued too far into the opening night as photographers and videographers wandered through the audience during the show distracting mightily from the storytelling.  

This show apparently started as a dare, trying to find the most unpalatable subject for a show. It was then written by three friends – as the program notes – over quite a few glasses of wine. And the final result is a testament to the deceptive appeal of alcohol. What seemed hilarious the night before can sometimes require editing in the clear sober light of the morning.

The result is musically rather derivative and the humour reminiscent of a teenage boys’ school revue. And while that absolutely has its place in an exploratory fringe environment, this show has possibly been marketed too far beyond its comfortable niche, setting unfair expectations that are impossible for it to meet in its current form. 

For, while very keen to attend this beautifully hyped event, rarely have I been as disappointed. There is a certain mischief of tone required to pull off bawdy material of this nature with humour and wit. But, sadly, that sense of mischief is rarely achieved in the more vulgar-styled direction of this production, and it wears thin pretty quickly. The female characters include the kind of sexist stereotypes from which it may be nice to think we have moved on.

On opening night, the audience became quieter and quieter as the second act dragged on. A big “clap along” song in the second half did not manage to reach its peak. 

That’s not to say there are not highlights. There are a couple of good ballads worth a listen, and still quite a few decent laughs. And Kanen Breen’s performance as Dr Frederick Treves is perfection, taking often mediocre material to stellar heights. Fresh from his role redefining turn as the Beadle in Sweeney Todd, his incredible voice anchors the show, and his acting and comic timing are flawless. It is worth the price of a ticket to see this virtuoso performer at work. 

But despite a very committed energy from the rest of the company, and a few impressive high notes from Ben Clark in the title role, the performances do not soar to the heights required to make the piece a truly successful musical. And as the sound design is often quite muddy and unclear, it is hard to tell whether the cast’s occasional pitch problems are to do with poor sound clarity. Again on opening night it appeared that a few microphones had forgotten to be switched on at times. Certainly, there are skilled and trained singers in this show, but they do not appear to be showcased to their best. 

Read: Exhibition review: Paul Bai, Pestorius Sweeney House

It is important to note that this production has received several rave reviews on the Fringe circuit. Many audiences in other cities appear to have enjoyed its unique style more than this reviewer, and this type of humour may indeed be the kind that tickles your fancy. The director’s notes articulate a dream of transferring to the West End or Broadway. While the concept has potential, the production has not yet found a convincing heart to balance all the “boy’s own” toilet humour. Perhaps they will need to invite input from beyond their circle of immediate friends before that dream is fulfilled.

The Marvellous Elephant Man – The Musical
Spiegeltent Festival Garden, Entertainment Quarter, Moore Park, Sydney
Written and composed by Marc Lucchesi, Sarah Nandagopan and Jayan Nandagopan
Co Directors: Chris HF Mitchell and Guy Masterson
Music Director: Sarah Nandagopan

Choreographer: Eden Read
Designer: Roberto Surace

Associate Designer: Rachel Nankin
Lighting Designer: Matthew Marshal
Sound Designer: Wayne Pashley

Set and Props Builder: Claudio Mantuano
Wardrobe Supervisor: Phoebe Clark

Dance Captain: Eleanor MacIntyre
Editor: Max Maclean

Cast: Ben Clark, Annelise Hall, Kanen Breen, Eleanor MacIntyre, Marc Lucchesi, Rebecca Rolle, Sam Harmon, Krystal Meyer, Lachlan Bartlett, Gavin James, Jayan Nandagopan, Tayman Jamae 

Tickets: $49-$110

The Marvellous Elephant Man will be performed until 1 October 2023 as part of Sydney Fringe Festival.

Dennis Clements is a NIDA Acting graduate and has a BA focused on Literature, Theatre and Journalism. He won the Theatre prize in his graduation year from Curtin University in WA. He has extensive leading role performance credits in both professional and community based companies, and has directed numerous productions for Bankstown Theatre Company and Ashfield Musical society. He is a registered Marriage Celebrant if you want to get hitched, and has also reviewed for Australian Stage online theatre magazine for several years.