Trafalgar Studios, London
Guest reviewer: Rosalind Freeborn
The Grinning Man is an astonishing piece of theatre which will appeal to anyone with an appetite for an entertainment which is piquant, curious, original and just a little bit macabre. This is certainly a festive show with a difference and is brilliantly performed; it will stay in your mind long after the lights have dimmed and the music has died away.
Based loosely on a novel by Victor Hugo’s novel, The Man who Laughs, this tale of cruelty, vengeance, love and redemption was developed by Tom Morris, artistic director at Bristol Old Vic, supported by a supremely talented team. The show is a musical with a strong operatic feel to it. Carl Grose, who wrote the book and lyrics clearly has a real feel for the bizarre and, teamed with Tim Phillips and Marc Teitler who wrote the music, orchestration and further lyrics, has created a piece of rare brutal beauty.
At its heart, The Grinning Man is a love story set, well, who knows, ‘in a time in history that never was’. Costumes are a wonderful mash-up of medieval peasant, Georgian toff and Victorian showman with top hats and swishing cloaks. I won’t bother you too much with the story, suffice to say that a young boy, Grinpayne (sensitively played and beautifully sung by Louis Maskell) is horribly mutilated, his mother is drowned, he saves the life of a baby, is adopted by a travelling showman who feeds him potions to ease the pain and forget his past. The baby girl he saves, Dea (played with sweet innocence and strong passion by Sanne Den Besten), is blind and unmoved by the horror of his face. The children grow up and they fall in love. But Grinpayne must earn his living by being part of a freak show at Trafalgar Fair and is a source of fascination to spectators who marvel at his hideous grin. The ruling royal family of this city – a peculiar and corrupted version of London (possibly) – becomes fascinated by his appearance and his suffering. There are revelations, surprises, deaths, confessions of love.
Photo Credit Helen Maybanks
The use of puppetry is dazzling. Operated by the older versions of the characters, the small puppets show the children growing up until, through an impressive example of theatrical sleight of hand, we see their adult selves. Mojo, the puppet hound, is full of character and expression.
Julian Bleach, a wickedly amusing Barkilphedro wears his evil credentials well, creeping around the stage like a crazed spider, two horrible extensions from his tight headdress swinging around his knees, shoulders hunched and red of nose. He is the king’s clown who longs to become a lord. He has the measure of the ‘royal family’ a delightfully ditzy Queen Angelica (Julie Atherton), a dim and bouncy Dirry-Moir (charming Mark Anderson) and sex-obsessed Josiana (a brilliant Amanda Wilkin) who oozes frustration and desire until she meets Grinpayne and makes an attempt to be demure in her bid to marry him. But Grinpayne loves Dea.
Photo Credit Helen Maybanks
The five-piece band, referred to as ‘Hans & the Bleeding Cheeks’ (directed by Tom Deering) maintain excellent musical control throughout from their space beneath the stage. The set might have felt beguilingly simple and redolent of pantomime but it was full of moving parts, flats and flourishes which created a visual feast and included a true coup de theatre with a swinging scythe. The entire theatre was decked out like a rather grim big top with peeling posters and paint splatters. Our role as spectators turned us into part of the show as the players literally burst upon us in a passionate finale.
This is a Christmas show with a difference and well worth seeing. Catch it if you can.
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