As the audience rose to their feet to acclaim the cast of The Real and Imagined History of the Elephant Man at Blackpool’s Grand Theatre, Zak Ford-Williams sank gratefully into his wheelchair. 

The Ramsbottom-born actor, who has cerebral palsy, had given a powerful, emotional and draining performance as Jospeh Merrick, a man fighting for his right to belong and searching for acceptance from society while being stared at in the street, in freakshows and in hospital. 

From the opening scenes of Tom Wright’s play we are invited to question what normal means and how someone different might fit in. 

The young Joseph’s father calls it the ‘age of sameness’ as new factories and mills churn out identical commodities and society expects people to be uniform too. It’s a view that is challenged by Ford-Williams and the rest of the cast who are all disabled, deaf and/or neurodivergent actors. 

Great British Life: The Real and Imagined History of The Elephant Man The Real and Imagined History of The Elephant Man (Image:

Ford-Williams – who appeared in the BBC drama Better earlier this year – is simply superb. He tells Merrick’s story with passion and compassion, anger, frustration and empathy. And he is ably supported by strong performances from Annabelle Davis, Daneka Etchells, Killian Thomas Lefevre, Nadia Nadarajah and Tim Pritchett. 

Joseph Merrick was born in Leicestershire in August 1862 and at the age of five began to show signs of a strange disorder that caused abnormal growths of much of the skin and bone across his body and caused his head to grow to three feet in circumference. 

Merrick was confined to a workhouse at age 17 before escaping four years later to join a freakshow and displays of the ‘The Elephant Man’ were part of the ‘human curiosities’ movement of the 19th century.  

While on display, Joseph was discovered by a London physician, Frederick Treves, and admitted to London Hospital in 1886. A letter that was published in an (unsuccessful) effort to find Merrick a hospital for chronic medical cases drew the attention of London society, which earned him a measure of fame and led to Merrick receiving visits from a number of prominent people. He remained at the London Hospital until he died in his sleep aged just 27. 

Great British Life: The Real and Imagined History of The Elephant Man The Real and Imagined History of The Elephant Man (Image:

This production puts Joseph at the centre of his own story, rejecting the myth of his powerlessness as he was often portrayed in previous interpretations – which also erroneously called him John. 

This is powerful, empowering and important theatre. See it at Blackpool Grand until Saturday October 21 with evening and matinee performances. Tickets cost from £14.50 and it is recommended for people aged 12+. For tickets, call 01253 290190 or go to