The Grinning Man at Trafalgar Studios
Though they may share a source author in Victor Hugo, The Grinning Man – adapted from The Man Who Laughs and produced by the Bristol Old Vic – could not be more different to the bombast of Les Mis. The ghoulish musical tells the tale of Grinpayne, a young man tortured by his bloody Glasgow smile, and the creeps and kooks that find his terrifying visage so fascinating.
There’s a bit of babushka dolling going on in the structure of the musical. Initially framed by an opening song from Julian Bleach’s delightfully snivelling servant Barkilphedro that introduces the realm’s bickering royal family – who may or may not have a connection to our hero – the early years of Grinpayne’s life are then told by his surrogate father Ursus, a druggist and puppeteer who takes in both the wounded boy and Dea, a crying motherless baby (and soon to be love interest) Grinpayne finds when orphaned and lost wandering in the woods.
Ursus’s travelling box of tricks is easily the best section of the production. Puppetry designers and directors Finn Caldwell and Toby Olie, working under the guidance of War Horse’s Tom Morris, conjure mangy wolves and broken boys, choppy seas and fairytale toys – delicate, absorbing work that makes it feel as if the pages of a gorgeous, Gothic picture book are being turned. All this takes place in the grimy grin of Jon Bausor’s set design, a gaping mouth that recalls a Victorian freak show or, if you are a certain kind of audience member, the Joker’s various lairs.
It’s just a shame these puppets have to grow up. Once Grinpayne and Dea become adults The Grinning Man quickly starts to shed what initially makes it so beguiling. The tonal divergence between Grinpayne’s identity crisis and the panto-flirting royal family – think a fictional episode of Horrible Histories – isn’t a problem in and of itself. The issue lies in the fact that the latter only serves to highlight how bland the emotional core of the production is. It’s hard to care about Louis Maskell’s vocally proficient but personality-less lead when compared to the hunched humour of Bleach’s court jester, while Sanne Den Besten’s Dea is defined purely by the fact that she’s a) blind, and b) in love.
If it’s odd that there’s been no real mention of the music, that’s for good reason. Compared with a recently opened hip-hopera, or even the top-tappers of Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, it’s hard not to notice the dearth of memorable tunes or ear-catching lyrics. Remove the songs – written by Carl Grose, Morris, Tim Phillips and Marc Teitler – and really nothing is lost. Which is a pretty damning thing to say about a musical that, however charmingly staged, can only raise half a smile.
Photo: Simon Annand
The Grinning Man is at Trafalgar Studios from 6th December 2017 until 17th February 2018. Book your tickets here.