“A dark hearted Christmas treat”
This is boom time for the pocket-sized British musical with big aspirations. Already this year we’ve seen the Old Vic’s Girl From the North Country – Conor McPherson’s plangent, soulful reimagining of Bob Dylan’s back catalogue – and Sheffield Crucible’s pop-tastic Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, now in the West End. And now comes this pungent, grimacing fairy tale, which premiered at Bristol Old Vic last year and which is directed by Tom Morris, still known most for his global smash hit War Horse.
It’s based on an 1869 Victor Hugo novel, but that hardly helps locate the darkly enchanted fairground territory into which this show plunges.
It’s the story of Grinpayne, an orphan who as a boy was scarred forever when an unknown assailant carved a smile onto his face. He’s been brought up by a puppeteer who both loves and exploits him, parading him for money as a freak-show attraction, alongside his blind, adopted sister Dee with whom he has fallen in love. Yet Grinpayne is also determined to the point of obsession to find out who cursed him with a life of pain.
Morris immerses the audience deep in a ghoulish, carnivalesque aesthetic. Designer Jon Bausor frames the small wooden stage with an open, leering mouth. Knock kneed percussion and nifty double bass provide keening, eerie accompaniment.
And if Grinpayne is a freak then, as the show not so subtly points out, he is scarcely any more so than the oddballs and misfits that surround him. Julian Bleach’s scheming clown manservant Barkilphedro slithers and slides like a creature from hell. The deliciously revolting, decadent royal family, coiffed and preened like figures on playing cards, consists of an incestuous brother and sister (an excellent Amanda Wilkin) and a mute queen in waiting.
Morris and his musical collaborators Tim Philips and Marc Teitler walk a high wire act of jostling, heightened tonal registers that don’t always fully harmonise. Carl Grose’s incident-packed narrative is prone to the odd confusing lurch. There is the nagging sense that the show’s magnificent gothic theatricality is at the expense of the more fable-like nature of the story.
But the show is also punctured by shards of sardonic, subversive wit. There is a clever emphasis throughout on alternative ways of seeing, as well as a spectacular puppet grey wolf, all slinky, skeletal body and bared, grinning teeth. And the final, desperately moving moments put me in mind of the reconciliation scenes in Shakespeare’s late romances. A dark-hearted Christmas treat.
Les Mis established that Victor Hugo wrote the kind of high-powered, theatrical novels that beg to be the basis for blockbuster musicals. Joey and War Horse confirmed the allure of puppets as heart-wringers in stage shows. Now these two strains have been brought together in a new musical that, despite its illustrious antecedents, is wholly its macabre, distinctive self. The Grinning Man is a pared-back adaptation of Hugo's 1869 novel L'Homme Qui Rit (“The Man Who Laughs”), devised at the Bristol Old Vic by Tom Morris, who directed War Horse before he became AD at Bristol, and his creative team – music by Tim Philips and Mark Teitler, book by Carl Grose, lyrics by all four of them. It's now casting its strange spell in London at the Trafalgar Studios.
The show tells the story of Grinpayne who had his face sadistically slashed from ear to ear when he was a small boy. Wiping the smile off your face is usually the stock-in-trade of villains. It's the fate of this victim to have had a grotesque smile permanently plastered over his. Employed as a fairground freak, he hides the terrible rictus behind a bloodied bandage, is adored by Dea (Sanne den Besten), a blind girl who's unfazed by his looks, and pines to know how he came about his disfigurement. The play is set in a mythical late 17th century England (the capital is at Catford) and we surmise that Grinpayne's predicament may be linked to an earlier attempt to unseat the corrupt royal family who operate on the greedy assumption that “to him that hath, much more shall be given”.
In Morris's production, it all unfolds like a fevered, slightly bonkers but luridly compelling fairy story. John Bausor's design frames the action in a huge gaping mouth of bared teeth. The travelling wagon opens up as a stage-within-a-stage. The score has an organ-grinding, carnival quality. Excellent Louis Maskell (singing through a mask) has to hoist himself up to some lonely melodic heights as the mutilated man flays himself and bares his soul to us (“Take a knife to your heart/Find the place where your agonies start”). Occasionally, I found the music a bit bludgeoning but it has variety of texture. Princess Josiana (Amanda Wilkin) deviates into a devout born-again blues when she explains the effect on her (“Brand New World of Feeling”) of seeing Grinpayne's mouth. For that's the irony that glints through the piece. A torment to him, the protagonist's unmasked wounds have a quasi-Christ-like effect of spiritual uplift on others.
The three hour piece loses momentum as its tries to tie too many loose ends together in the second half. The dysfunctional royal family —- flinty new queen and her indulgent and incestuous siblings – aren't nearly as interesting or amusing as the creators seem to think. The intricacies of plot need to be pruned. Channelling his inner Vincent Price, Julian Bleach (of Shockheaded Peter fame) is gloriously Gothic as the court's evil jester, Barkilphedro, “Laughter is the best medicine,” he sings and he elongates the hacking vibrato on the word “best” as though he is trying to saw his way down to Australia. “Puppetry's not as easy as it looks,” he snaps. In the expert hands of Gyre and Gimble puppeteers, Finn Caldwell and Toby Olie, it certainly looks beautiful – whether in the achingly expressive marionette version of Grinpayne as a child or in the wonderfully moving Mojo, a skeletal grey wolf who saves the day at one point by crashing through a stained glass window in order to derail some ill-advised nuptials. Recommended.
“The best puppetry since War Horse”
“Defies theatrical convention by keeping its hand on its heart and its tongue in its cheek”
I first saw the delicate Audrey Brisson sparkle in The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk at the Globe. Now Brisson is in The Grinning Man, light as thistledown, sweet-voiced as a chorister. She is the dainty counterpart to Julian Bleach’s slithering torturer clown, who whips around the stage like Richard III’s less cosy cousin.
Tom Morris’s production ingeniously mashes up the alternative and the blaringly popular. There is a smatter of that most inventive of musical shows, Shockheaded Peter, a touch of Les Mis, one of the most intolerable, and the grisly glow of fairytale.
Jon Bausor’s design gobbles up the stage in a huge mouth. Thin red lips stretch all round the proscenium arch, teeth hang from the ceiling. Gyre and Gimble – the puppeteers with whom Morris worked on War Horse – create a star in a wolf-dog puppet, with long grey muzzle, glittering eyes and rag-clad swivelling body.
Loosely based on Victor Hugo’s novel L’homme qui rit, the story has been transplanted by the writer Carl Grose to an imaginary Bristol, capital of England. Rebels in the country of a tyrant king dangle from gibbets, a princess spends all her time in orgies, and a youth (very fine Louis Maskell) whose face was horribly attacked as a baby finds his features set in a permanent grin. He is beloved of a beautiful blind girl and, paraded as a freak, becomes a star. So here is a smile without mirth, a clown who is not funny – “be funny” the courtiers scream at him – and memorable merry music that stabs as it seems to cheer. “Laughter is the best medicine,” it jeers and leers. It is lovely, peculiar stuff. Take out 20 minutes of an over-corrugated plot and whip it into the West End.
“Satisfying and heart-wrenching”
“Very funny and highly entertaining”
“An audacious gem of rare quality”
A strange new act has arrived at the fairground. Who is Grinpayne and how did he get his hideous smile? Paraded as a freak, then celebrated as a star, only the love of a sightless girl can reveal his terrible secret.
Following its hugely successful premiere at Bristol Old Vic, where it received nightly standing ovations, the critically acclaimed new musical The Grinning Man transfers to the West End for a limited season only.
From Tony Award-winning director Tom Morris (War Horse), Kneehigh writer Carl Grose and featuring “an outstanding score” (Sunday Times) by Tim Phillips and Marc Teitler, The Grinning Man is a magical reimagining of the classic novel by Victor Hugo (Les Misérables).
Set in a fantastical world created by designer Jon Bausor (Bat Out of Hell) and brought to life with the visually stunning puppetry of Gyre & Gimble, the original War Horse puppeteers, The Grinning Man invites you to be seduced by the darkness.