The Theatre Royal, Haymarket is to star actors what the London Palladium is to international concert and musical performers: London's premiere theatrical address to appear at. The arrival of a revival of Bernard Pomerance's 1970s play The Elephant Man — originally premiered at London's Hampstead Theatre — may be a homecoming for the play, as well as the man whose life story it tells; but it's actually above all a deeply old-fashioned star vehicle, in which Bradley Cooper — one of Hollywood's action men du jour, nominated in three consecutive years for the Oscar (most recently for American Sniper) — can show off his theatrical credentials.
And the actor — whose other accolades include being named the "Sexiest Man Alive" by People magazine in 2011 — also gets the opportunity to reveal other attributes, too, when he makes his first entrance, naked except for a pair of shorts. That may well be enough to justify the exorbitant ticket prices being charged for this 12-week London season of a handsome but underpowered production that originated on Broadway last year (and for which he has been nominated for a Tony Award, too). Most of the stalls is going for £108, which — given the play runs for 100 minutes (plus interval) — works at 92.5p per minute. (And if you want a glossy programme, too, that's another £10).
You can have your (beef)cake, but you may not be able to eat it; the play is sometimes indigestible, as it invites us to join our Victorian predecessors in gawping at disability by doing so at celebrity. That's just one paradox here; but Cooper's performance is a saving grace of Pomerance's episodically structured play, that shows his progress from freak show exhibit to medical curiosity and eventually someone who is feted by high society. Cooper is convincingly contorted in a play that is frequently distorted and dull.
One scene, however, has utter conviction, and that's his awakening sexuality as kindly actress Mrs Kendal (Patricia Clarkson) strips to her bare breasts to offer him his first sight of naked female flesh. If only the rest of the play felt as authentic as that. As Frederick Treves, the doctor who rescues him from the fairground show and gives him a home at the London Hospital, wrestles with other issues of conscience around his treatment and the discipline he imposes on him, I was less convinced, despite Alessandro Nivola's thoughtful performance.
"Much as I admire Cooper’s performance, I still find Pomerance’s play – as I did on its Hampstead theatre premiere in London in 1977 – thin and tendentious."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Cooper is touching and unshowy in the title role and, together with co-star Alessandro Nivola, completely carries Scott Ellis’s sluggishly directed production. "
Ben Lawrence for The Telegraph
"The part demands remarkable focus — which he achieves. What could be a flashy exercise instead feels rigorously controlled. But even as he rises to the physical and vocal challenges, he can’t obscure the creakiness of the material with which he’s working."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard