The Grinning Man at Bristol Old Vic online
The sea of theatre streaming options, brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic, has joyfully made enjoying drama accessible to a far larger audience than just those who were able to afford tickets to major venues. One hopes this will spark the imagination of future dramaturges and directors, but with such a wealth of options, one wonders if there is a coherent way to find routes into what to watch or avoid. Fortunately, the eye-catching The Grinning Man gives viewers something to smile about. From the book by Carl Grose, music by Tim Phillips, Marc Teitler and lyrics by Grose, Teitler, Phillips and Tom Morris, its successful run at the Bristol Old Vic in 2016 is now streaming on YouTube as part of the theatre’s Covid-19 response.
In Victorian Bristol, Grinpayne’s (Louis Maskell) face carved is to show a permanent grin. Living in a freak show, he falls in love, learns to accept himself and searches for his true origins. It’s really rather sprawling. The scale of Victor Hugo’s novel (The Man Who Laughs) is tough to match without a Les Miserables budget, but a convincing lighting rig summons the right kind of atmosphere. Daylight spills through a stained glass window upon a congregation, while a feather-clad queen speechifies movements beyond Grinpayne’s story; musical numbers meet panto and high melodrama.
Morris modernises the language by highlighting its bathos: the clown narrator Barkilphedro interrupts the opening number – Laughter Is The Best Medicine – by screaming that he hates the song, while the company will often lean into the slightly slapdash staging and costume. It’s a classically Bristolian piece of theatre, with a roughshod air of mysticism and a carnie atmosphere that recalls Turbo Island and the streets of St Werburghs. Equally, references to other city spots feel engineered to be replaced depending on which city the troupe is playing in that week.
Clever use of shadow puppets tells big events, but the larger puppets aren’t quite animated enough to feel alive, particularly when belting out the showstoppers. Though Grinpayne and Dea, in the play’s most magical number, are introduced as two puppet children, they play with their own marionettes. When the blocks of their bodies slip away, the performers transform into the characters mid-song. It’s an ingenious transition that kicks the show up a notch. The camera necessarily adds a new dimension to the piece. But the size of the Old Vic’s stage is perfect fodder for simple camera coverage that captures the performance in its totality.
With an aesthetic that’s less Fellini than Black Parade, the musical score is crushed by its proximity to Alain Boublil, particularly when its large cast harmonise and our two young beaus gaze doe-eyed at one another. Yet its spirit of feeling and creativity is so genuine that one can’t help but be impressed.
Photo: Simon Annand
The Grinning Man is at from 26th June until 3rd July 2020. For further information visit the theatre’s website here.
Watch the trailer for The Grinning Man here: