Theatre: Review: The Grinning Man, Bristol Old Vic
Based on a novel by Victor Hugo, The Grinning Man tells the story of Grinpayne (Louis Maskell), a grotesquely mutilated man, as he seeks for the truth about how his face was permanently cut into an eternal grin.
It’s a story about forgetting the past, the destructiveness of guilt and – as in any self-respecting musical – the redemptive power of love.
The world of The Grinning Man blends Victorian fairgrounds, the streets of John Gay’s London, the dark foreboding of Grimm fairytales and the alienation of Weimar cabaret.
The performance style is slightly knowing, offbeat and lightly sketched, in a manner familiar to those who have seen director Tom Morris’s work or some of the companies that frequent the Old Vic like Kneehigh and Travelling Light.
A simple set encourages the audience to stretch and engage their imaginations, puppets represent characters, lines are addressed directly to the audience. There is also a finale which makes a unique and highly effective use of the whole of the pit.
All this is made possible partly through Richard Howell’s fantastically effective lighting design.
Composers Tim Phillips and Marc Teitler sometimes echo – appropriately – Les Miserables, but their sound is a distinctive one and there is real intelligence in both the structure and the use of repeated musical themes throughout the evening.
And the cast offer very fine and powerful singing voices across the board. The lyrics may occasionally be a little contrived and/or twee, but there is plenty of wit and cleverness woven into the production as well.
The same goes for Carl Grose’s script, which manages for the most part to avoid the overly saccharine and inject plenty of humour.
If there are any hints of Disney, it’s of the rather more refined Beauty and the Beast rather than the one-dimensional pre-teen fodder like Cinderella. But you wouldn’t really want to bring young children to what is justifiably billed as a macabre musical (with some fairly adult language). This one’s for grown-ups – although there is a rather nice Shrek reference.
The outstanding performance is Julian Bleach’s Barkilphedro, the sour Machiavellian jester who acts as both master of ceremonies and lynchpin in the story. He is the scariest clown you can imagine, the dark twin of Richard O’Brien’s Riff Raff. Bleach has utterly impeccable comic timing, which is put to full use as he capers and plots his way through the story.
The puppetry – directed by the original team behind War Horse – is astounding. The synchronicity of two or three operators is all the more astonishing for being unnoticeable, and the constant subtle movements lend a verisimilitude to the characters that distracts the audience entirely from the human beings operating the puppets. When Grinpayne and Dea take flight, you simply believe they really are flying.
What makes The Grinning Man particularly special is that everything works.
There are many evenings in the theatre where some parts of the show disappoint, when it doesn’t quite succeed as the onlooker would hope. In this production everything comes together at the apotheosis of what it could be: puppets, singing, acting, lighting, set, script.
As a theatrical performance – the combination of so many diverse talents to deliver a show to an audience – it’s simply beautiful.
The Grinning Man is undoubtedly destined for bigger things. That’s one reason to go and see it in its birthplace. The other reason is that it’s utterly brilliant.
The Grinning Man is at Bristol Old Vic until November 13. For tickets and more information, visit www.bristololdvic.org.uk/grinningman.html
Photographs by Simon Annand