Actor Louis Maskell had no experience of puppetry before he took the leading role The Grinning Man, a new play supported by Bruno Wang Productions. “It was totally thrilling and really hard work,” he says. “You develop a very intense relationship with the other puppeteers – and nothing is more thrilling than when you get it right.”
The Grinning Man, which has just transferred to London’s Trafalgar Studios after premiering at Bristol Old Vic, tells the story of Grinpayne, a young man with a terrifying smile (Maskell). The production has been critically acclaimed and awarded five and four-star reviews by critics, with nightly standing ovations from the audience.
The plot sees Grinpayne arrive at a freak show to find himself unexpectedly popular – and also in love. “I’m on a journey to find out who mutilated my face,” said Maskell in a recent interview with Broadway World. “Interspersed with lots of puppetry and wolves.”
Based on a novel by Victor Hugo and scripted by Carl Grose, the play was directed by Tony Award-winner Tom Morris, who brought in Gyre & Gimble, the puppeteers behind War Horse (which Morris also directed). For The Grinning Man they have created terrifying dolls and a wolf that looks as though half its pelt has been stripped away.
“It is a very dark comedy,” Maskell says. “Intense and dark but littered with real humour.”
Maskell has said the experience of creating Grinpayne has been challenging. The role required him to learn sword fighting as well as puppetry, and he also had to get used to acting in a mask and bandages. Wearing the prosthetic mask was particularly difficult “because obviously we’re used to our own bodies and faces,” he said. “To then have to do a high-intensity show with literally something just hanging on your face was really challenging. But it’s something that I guess I just had to work around. I was slightly restricted in my speech at first.
“You really just need to embrace it rather than go against it because if you fight it then I think you’re doomed. But also, it’s pretty cool. To be able to embody a character and to have something that is part of your body anyway, as opposed to costumes, was amazing.”
As a result of his work, Maskell was nominated for a UK Theatre Award for Best Performance in a Musical. “For me, it was like a bonus,” he told the website TodayTix, “because the real reward was to be cast in a totally new production in a theatre I’ve never worked at and one that evokes such history. To be nominated was great, but to actually be a part of the piece was the real triumph.”