Trafalgar Studios, London
“A tale so tragic it could only be true”… I’m no real fan of the Trafalgar Studios, to be honest – its seating can be cramped, its angles severe, the toilet situation far from ideal, plus the coffee machine there takes an inordinate amount of time to produce a drink. But credit where it is due, director Tom Morris and designer Jon Bausor have done a fantastically inventive job in reconceiving the space to suit the anarchic energy of The Grinning Man, first seen in Bristol last year (and my favourite musical of the year, too).
A new British musical (book by Carl Grose, music by Tim Phillips and Marc Teitler, lyrics by all three plus Morris) based on a Victor Hugo novel, it’s a macabre tale to be sure, but one suffused with a real magic too. And Morris gives it an immediacy which scrubs away much of the distance that audiences can feel in the old Whitehall Theatre as cellists appear through walls, performers clamber into the stalls to sing, couples walk as if on air…
Set in an alternate historical England, the story revolves around Grinpayne, mutilated as a child and now forced to work in a travelling puppet show with his adoptive family. The sight of the ‘smile’ carved into his face causes rapture in many who witness it and once the royal family catch wind of the new show in town, Grinpayne’s destiny changes forever along with the blind lovers, domesticated wolves, unruly princesses, and vicious manservants who swirl around him.
Louis Maskell is just superb as the psychologically as well as physically scarred Grinpayne and his malleable voice suits the unconventional mood of the score well, especially in songs like ‘Labyrinth’. The instrumentation is very much left-of-centre but these tunes have a way of burrowing themselves into the psyche, (I found I remembered several even now, a year down the line). And as the nightmarishly charismatic narrator of sorts, Julian Bleach‘s Barkilphedro is wickedly enjoyable, both underscoring how much they deserved their fosterIAN awards.
Of the new cast members, it’s a joy to see Julie Atherton on the stage once again, this time as the self-possessed queen-in-waiting Angelica, and Mark Anderson‘s Lord Dirry-Moir is delectably delightful as he deals with the tangled web of his emotions. There’s superlative work from Gyre & Gimble’s puppetry, Loren O’Dair and James Alexander-Taylor’s work with the wolf is exceptional, and the whole show is just as satisfying and challenging and complex and beautiful as I remembered. Recommended.