Admittedly, I haven’t seen the original film that The Marvellous Elephant Man: The Musical is based on and was advised that it didn’t matter. So, when I attended the musical as part of the 2023 Melbourne International Comedy Festival, I expected to laugh. Otherwise, why was it part of the comedy festival?
The musical tells the tale of a deformed man, John Merrick (Ben Clark), that is found by a London Hospital surgeon, Frederick Treves (Kanen Breen) while in a Victorian freak show. Merrick is sold to Treves, who is treated as some kind of genius for his discovery while he treats Merrick like shit.
Deep beneath his disfigured exterior, Merrick is a kind gentle intelligent soul that just wants to be treated with respect and love. He’s not an elephant, he’s just a man and deserves to be treated as such.
Now, I’m not sure how much this story differs from its original format, but in the musical, he is in love with Nurse Hope (Annelise Hall) and chaos ensues on Merrick’s journey to no longer being treated as an animal, obtaining some self-confidence to push back his suppressor, finding love, all while becoming his own person.
Upon entering the theatre, you’re greeted by cast members who are happy to interact with you, take selfies with you, and lead you to your seat. It was the lovely Troy Sussman that led me to my seat, shining his dazzling smile my way and greeting me with kindness. He was the first upon the scene and as a crowd formed filled with patrons keen to take their seats, so did the number of the ensemble cast that greeted the patrons. I really enjoyed the interactive approach of the pre-show content, but I also wondered how this would relate to the overall story. Turns out, it didn’t. Considering that the main character, Ben Clark’s John Merrick didn’t really receive any real kindness at all it is a rather odd decision.
The interior of the Chapel Off Chapel room had been transformed to look like we’re inside of an old plain circus tent. On the left side of the stage there was a platform with instruments, which were soon joined by their musicians that formed a 5-piece band. On the right side of the stage there was another raised platform which was empty, and a colourful circular sign in the middle that stated the title of the show in case you forgot.
Granted, The Marvellous Elephant Man: The Musical didn’t conjure up the story and merely adapted it. But regardless, what this musical is severely flawed with is its identity. Cheap crass jokes are thrown around constantly in an attempt to make audiences laugh while the musical’s content is deep, dark, and serious. Together, it feels like the show doesn’t know what it wants to be.
Is it a retelling? Is it a parody? Is it meant to be funny? Is it mean to be serious? I still don’t know. What I do know is that I didn’t laugh once. For something submitted to be part of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, I had high expectations for it to tickle my funny bones. Instead, I sat there surprised, disappointed, and painfully waited for it to all be over.
Although the cast do the best they can with the content they’re given, actors can only do so much. There are also intimate moments where the show is almost promising, but these moments were dashed as quickly as they came, rudely interrupted by the cheap laugh attempts and bad jokes that I quickly grew tired of. I found these unfunny and it ruined the mood before audiences could soak in and relate to any of the characters.
I was however thoroughly impressed with Ben Clark’s vocals, Kanen Breen’s stage presence, and even Marc Lucchesi’s natural ability to captivate the room in his various roles. But it’s all for naught if the content isn’t even good. Even for a story that initially existed and has had changes made to it, these changes should have at least been made to make the story better. They do not. And despite the music being somewhat catchy, the songs aren’t memorable at all either.
The Marvellous Elephant Man: The Musical is wild but not in a way that is remotely enjoyable. If you do enjoy crass humour then by all means give this show a go. But it did nothing for me and I really wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.
I attended one of the final shows of The Marvellous Elephant Man: The Musical at the 2023 Melbourne International Comedy Festival and the festival is now over. The show also has no new dates planned yet. Please feel free to check out the link for any future announcements though.
For more information on The Marvellous Elephant Man: The Musical and future ticketing, visit: