The Grinning Man.
19 December 2017
Who knew that Victor Hugo would provide such fertile ground for musical theatre adaptation? Bristol Old Vic’s production will probably always stand in the shadow of the world conquering, barricade storming Les Misrables, but The Grinning Man is a macabre, melodramatic, Gothic masterpiece in its own right. Tom Morris, co-creator of another world conquering hit, War Horse, has created a wonderfully inventive and beautiful looking production that brings the spirit of Bristol Old Vic into London. Set designer Jon Bausor takes music hall and carnival and extends his world into the auditorium and even the corridors leading into it, the lighting design by Bob Casey is superb, and the puppetry design and direction by Finn Caldwell and Toby Olie is outstanding, astonishing and thrilling.
And on the stage unfolds a story of survival and a search for identity that chimes with our modern age. Grinpayne, our hero, had his face hideously disfigured when a child, a permanent smile cut into his cheeks. He is rescued, along with blind girl Dina, by a kindly man who brings them up as his own, and they grow up to be the attractions in a carnival circus freak show. Royalty crashes into their lives at Trafalgar Fair, and the plot focuses on Grinpayne’s search for revenge on the man who mutilated him. He becomes a kind of holy figure; those who look upon his un-bandaged face are filled with rapture. There is drowning at sea, death haunts the stage, torture and moralising-so far so Hugo.
Julian Bleach is in his element as narrator/clown/villain Barkilphedro, his wonderful voice stretching and filling the auditorium, his physicality astonishing, a performance of equal threat and hilarity. As Grinpayne, Lois Maskell is excellent, vocally strong and his character beautifully vulnerable and Sanne Den Besten is haunting and fragile as blind girl Dea. The Royals, Julie Atherton as harsh Queen Angelica, Sophia Mackay as sex crazed Quake and Mark Anderson as naive Moir are all engaging and wonderful, in fact there isn’t a weak link in the cast, with Sean Kingsley highly powerful as the surrogate father Ursus. But it’s the puppetry that impresses, particularly the hound Mojo, a superb creation that commands attention and respect, and beautiful puppets of the lead characters as children, including a beautiful sequence in which they play with puppets.
The score, book by Carl Grose and music by Tim Phillips and Marc Teitler, is narrative driven, haunting and effective. It’s unlikely to produce a hit single, but that matters little as it condenses Hugo’s huge novel into a cohesive narrative. There are times, particularly in the first half, when, with more than one aspect being retold, there is a little too much narration where showing would be do more, and the show could lose a few minutes. But this is a mesmerising slice of the macabre, with influences of The Threepenny Opera, Shockheaded Peter, shadow plays and Kneehigh lovingly cohesing into a perfect night of theatre, a production that thoroughly deserved its standing ovation. With The Kings Head’s irreverent La Boheme playing in Studio 2, the Trafalgar Studios is the venue to be at over the next few weeks! Just go!