ZAK Ford-Williams admits that the idea of playing Joseph Merrick on stage in the European premiere of The Real and Imagined History of the Elephant Man absolutely terrified him. It was also the reason he took on the role.

“I’m a great believer that you should always do the jobs that scare you and pull you out of your comfort zone,” he said. “This certainly does that!”

It’s likely that anyone who may be aware of Joseph Merrick has got their information from the 1980 movie starring John Hurt or an earlier play called The Elephant Man.

Lancashire Telegraph: Zak Ford-Williams (Picture: Tom Barker)

This new production attempts to put the record straight about a man whose severe disabilities led first to him being exhibited as part of a travelling ‘freak show’ and then effectively becoming a scientific experiment in a Victorian Hospital.

It’s a bold and challenging piece of theatre, made all the more remarkable by the cast.

“We have a majority of deaf and disabled cast members,” said Zak who himself was born with cerebral palsy. “Our objective has always primarily been to make a really good play but if people take away other stuff from it they definitely can.

“We’re not trying to slap anyone around the head with the themes of the play but they are definitely there for you if you care to look.”

This production is very different from both the film and original Elephant Man play.

“Both were primarily based on the writing of Frederick Trieves the doctor who treated Joseph Merrick and which were written very much from a particular standpoint,” said Zak.

“There were certainly a lot of inaccuracies in that account - for a start he called him John Merrick when his name was Joseph. Now more information has become available which allows this play to take all the known facts and to also interpret the gaps in between that still remain.”

Merrick was born with a physical deformity which may have been Proteus syndrome. For The Real and Imagined History there will be no prosthetics used.

“Instead of putting stuff on my face, I am just using my own condition and the progression of condition and letting it take over rather than pretending to have a disability I don’t have,” said Zak.

The role represents a major challenge for Zak who has appeared in Better and Wolfe on the BBC.

“I’m predominantly a wheelchair user but I’m not using my wheelchair for any of the show,” he said. “It didn’t feel right. My chair is too nice and comfortable to go on stage.

“In rehearsals it struck me that I was moving as Joseph on on stage in a way that not even my parents or closest friends have seen. It is quite raw but it needs to be because he was so exposed. For me to to back off would be a disservice to him.”

Lancashire Telegraph: Zak Ford-Williams in The Real and Imagined History of the Elephant Man

The role places huge physical demands on Zak.

“I’m barely off the stage and I’ve been having a lot of physio and we have spent a lot of time in rehearsal studying the movement,” he said. “The tricky part is that Joseph’s condition has to progress slowly, I have to release it bit by bit rather than all at once.”

Ramsbottom-born Zak knew from an early age that he wanted to become an actor and refused to let his cerebral palsy stop him. After studying at Woodhey High School and Holy Cross in Bury he went to the Manchester School of Theatre where he was the only disabled actor in his year.

“In my mind I have always been an actor,” he said. “If me doing this means that a young person finally sees themselves reflected on stage, that would be a really nice thing.

“Many of the issues raised by the play are still relevant today but I don’t want it to sound too heavy. I hope it makes them think they feel as though they have been entertained. Even if they don’t connect to some of the ideas I hope they think they have had a damn good night at the theatre.”

The Real and Imagined History of the Elephant Man, Grand Theatre, Blackpool, Tuesday, October 17 to Saturday, October 21. Details from