Fringe meets freak — the Marvellous Elephant Man

Fringe meets freak — the Marvellous Elephant Man

The Sydney Fringe festival prides itself on presenting new, edgy, highly entertaining works; The Marvellous Elephant Man: The Musical  is a case in point. Having wowed audiences at the Adelaide Fringe and Melbourne Comedy Festivals, this wild and fabulous show will make its Sydney debut at the Sydney Fringe’s centrepiece venue, the Sydney Spiegeltent in Moore Park. 

“There never was a show more suited to being performed in a tent, it’s got such a sort of circus vibe to it,” says Kanen Breen who plays Dr Frederick Treves in the show. The Spiegeltent and its feisty sister, The Vault, are the performance areas in the Spiegeltent Festival Gardens, a Fringe hub featuring bars, food, seating, and loads of atmosphere. 

Kanen Breen. Photo: supplied

“It’s such a lovely feeling to be part of a bigger theatrical or festival type of event,” Breen adds. “It offers up a vibe.”

The Spiegeltent is a theatre in the round, which means the artists have to give a 360’ performance. It’s very dynamic and intense. 

“We’ve got a wonderful choreographer on the show called Eden Read who’s done a really incredible job of not only choreographing the numbers that insist on proper movement, but also just keeping the energy alive in moments that don’t cry out to be choreographed,” explains Breen. 

The Marvellous Elephant Man is very loosely based on the true story of Joseph Merrick (erroneously and perpetually referred to as John Merrick thanks to an incorrect journal entry). Born in the mid-1800s, Merrick suffered from an extreme and grotesque physical deformity that could not be treated and that left him with few options beyond living as a recluse or being exploited as a side-show freak — both fates befell him. 

Kanen Breen as Dr Treves. Photo: Paul Scott

This musical telling of Merrick’s story has taken a great many liberties, according to Breen. 

“In particular with Dr Treves, who in reality was quite a benevolent figure and certainly did a great deal more good than harm in the life of John Merrick, but in this re-telling of the story, is being painted very much as the villain of the piece.”

Breen describes this version of  Dr Treves as an opportunist, a bit of a mad scientist who is not averse to human experimentation. For Breen, it’s another chance to tap into his dark side, having recently played a nasty character in Sweeney Todd. 

Annelise Hall, Kanen Breen, Ben Clark in THE MARVELLOUS ELEPHANT MAN. Photo: Paul Scott

“Villains are great fun to play,” says Breen. “The world is full of villains and it’s always interesting to try and access the humanity underneath the villainy and try and make sense of it.”

An interesting choice made by the creative team is not to depict Merrick’s deformities in any overt physical way: no prosthetics, no make-up. They feel that the story and image of The Elephant Man is so well known that there is no need to be visually explicit. 

“It takes that pressure off the production and off the audience to have to tread carefully around things that should be trodden carefully around. We’re really talking more about the challenge of his soul and of his capacity to love himself and to find love in the world rather than his battle against deformity,” explains Breen. 

In terms of the music, it’s an eclectic mix, reflecting the nature of its three writers. Jay and Sarah Nandagopan have classical backgrounds, while Marc Lucchesi is rock/soul/blues/jazz/funk oriented. The resulting soundtrack is erratic, reflecting the fortunes and emotions of the story. 

“A musical theatre show is the perfect terrain for that sort of stuff to be explored because music naturally lends itself towards grander or more drawn out expressions of love and pain and anger and anguish and vengeance and hatred and joy and all that sort of stuff.”

The show isn’t mired down in pathos, though, in fact Breen says it is loaded with smut and juvenile humour. It’s a rollicking fun time evenly tempered with a beautiful story of humanity and romance. 

September 1 – October 1

Sydney Spiegeltent, Entertainment Quarter, Moore Park

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