Bristol Old Vic premiered The Grinning Man in late 2016 to celebrate its 250th anniversary and the show then transferred to London. It has now been revived online to raise funds for the beleaguered theatre. The storyline comes from a Victor Hugo novel (well, it worked for Les Mis) and tells a grim tale about disfigurement which has some close parallels to Phantom Of The Opera. In that sense it is an archetypal story and the show cleverly makes use of this dimension as the whole production constantly emphasises the power and necessity of narrative.
The show is set in an alternative universe version of Bristol which seems to be stuck in late medieval times. A mysterious young man Grinpayne has a face which is horribly disfigured and he is therefore exhibited as a freak (shades of The Elephant Man) at the local fair. Alongside him is Dea the blind girl; he rescued her as a baby when he was still just a child himself. She, of course, cannot see his face so loves him for who he is. The tale follows Grinpayne’s and Dea’s attempts to get to the bottom of their mysterious childhoods. They are protected, to some extent, by Ursus who works the fairground circuit and his pet wolf, Mojo. The latter is a wonderfully manipulated puppet figure which integrates seamlessly into the action.
The show is big on puppetry. Indeed, the child versions of Grinpayne and Dea are themselves very convincing puppets used to play out the scenes of their early life together. Ursus is a puppeteer who teaches them his craft and in one highly ingenious scene we see the adult actors playing the pair working the puppets of their younger selves who in turn are manipulating even smaller puppet characters from the well known tale of Beauty and The Beast. Quite apart from the physical dexterity this must take, it adds layers of meaning to the main storyline and reinforces the power of storytelling. It’s a really magical moment courtesy of master puppeteers Gyre and Gimble.
Louis Maskell is in fine voice as Grinpayne, particularly as he seems to be totally unfazed by the bandage he wears across his mouth for much of the show. The revelation of his disfigurement for the first time is a real moment though probably slightly less effective in close up shots on a TV screen. Audrey Brisson matches him vocally as Dea and when the two duet it is powerful stuff indeed. Sean Kingsley as Ursus has a commanding presence and there’s an hilarious double act from Gloria Onitiri and Stuart Neal as a debauched pair of royal siblings. Adding to the sense of the sinister, as he so often seems to do, is Julian Bleach (the MC in Shockheaded Peter, the Emcee in Cabaret, Davros in Dr Who) who puts in a grand guignol turn as Barkilphedro the royal clown and chief villain of the piece. He is eminently hissable but, fortunately, director Tom Morris has wisely avoided going down the pantomime route. As a fairy story this is the grimmest of grim tales and there are certainly scenes (and a bit of language) which might be unsuitable for young family members. This is a pity because I think they would have lapped up the story otherwise and it as it is a highly moral tale there are some great lessons to be taken away from it, not least that we shouldn’t judge by appearances.
The score and orchestration are lush though I did find, after a time, that there were just one too many songs about courage, conviction and taking on the world. I felt that a bit more contrast wouldn’t have gone amiss – something like Les Mis’s “Master Of The House”, for instance. However, a big thumbs up for the musicians who play beautifully led by MD Tarek Merchant and an even bigger thumbs up to sound designer Simon Baker who makes sure that everyone can be heard – the clarity achieved is remarkable. The design work by Jon Bausor and Jean Chan is great and put me mind of the work of Terry Gilliam, which is another plus in my book.
This is an enjoyable and unusual musical which has already made its mark and should continue to do during the week for which it is streaming. I did find the show a little overlong; it sometimes seemed to take an age to reach a point it was straining to make, particularly in the second half. Losing the unnecessary sub theme about messianic conversions would have improved the show no end and sharpened its focus – as it is, this aspect didn’t really go anywhere. Slightly unusual to mention this in a review but if you watch, do spend some time investigating the online supporting website which is like a supersized virtual programme with some fascinating glimpses into how it was all put together. Also there’s the usual merchandising opportunities – must say I’m tempted by the Covid 19 mask. One nice touch is that in order to replicate the theatre experience you can print off your ticket – even better there’s no wretched booking fee for the privilege of doing so. Another benefit of lockdown theatre.
Production photos by Simon Annand
The Grinning Man can be streamed from the Bristol Old Vic website via You Tube. Click here
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