“What drew me to this play is how people judge and misunderstand”, explains Alison. She first joined Lewes Theatre Club as a teenager in 1967 “to get away from my parents on a Tuesday evening”. Later, whilst living in America, she was responsible for one of the first amateur productions of the play. “Unlike the film with John Hurt, this play is very much about what's going on inside Merrick. Because of his appearance, people expected him to be an imbecile. He was, in fact, very intelligent and sensitive.”
The actor playing the Elephant Man – referred to as John Merrick in the play – is Philip Dunn. Opposite him, as Frederick Treves, is Chris Parke. “Treves is almost the main character. His character arc is really rather intense. Then we've got Emily Lassalle, who's playing Mrs Kendall, a high-society actress. She relates to the wounded soul in John Merrick… and he falls in love with her.”
Instead of using prosthetics and make-up, the Elephant Man’s appearance is suggested through Philip Dunn’s performance. “A lot of the play’s theme is about illusion and mirroring”, Alison tells me. “I think John Merrick mirrored back to people what they liked about themselves, or, in the case of Treves, what they didn't like about themselves, which is why he succeeded so well in society. And that's what happens with an audience: people receive whatever the play is reflecting back to them."
I ask Alison if the play is a tragedy. “It's tragic, in that Merrick’s inner life doesn't match his exterior life. And the other side of the story is the surgeon, Mr Treves. He starts off in control, very sure of himself, but starts to question all his values. So it's a little tragic for him, too.”
Behind the production is one further heartbreak that’s not in any script. Last July, Alison’s grandson Tyler died at the age of three, his life shortened by a medical condition that prevented him from moving at all. “He didn’t cry. On the outside he was a perfect child, this little locked-in boy. But we didn’t know what he was thinking. In an age where we're so image-conscious, with people having facial surgery to look 'more perfect', this seemed a good topic to be exploring. And that’s why I particularly wanted to put the play on here, in Lewes, at this time.”
Performances Mon 21 to Sat 26 at 7.45pm, plus Saturday matinee 2.45pm. Tickets £10 from 01273 474826 lewestheatre.org
First published in Viva Lewes magazine issue 114 March 2016