Writer: Carl Grose
Music: Tim Phillips and Marc Teitler
Director: Tom Morris
While the ongoing closure of theatres has delayed so many new productions, lockdown has offered audiences a chance to revisit some of the very best shows of the last 10 years; while the National Theatre at Home has streamed the Old Vic’s A Streetcar Named Desire and Coriolanus from the Donmar Warehouse, the savvy Bristol Old Vic at Home has made one of the best new musicals available for a week – The Grinning Man.
Originally staged in 2016, this macabre fairy tale based on Victor Hugo’s novel The Man Who Laughs is described as a ‘bootleg capture’, essentially an archive recording of a show whose reputation only grew when it transferred to the Trafalgar Studios at the close of 2018. Changes had been made by then, so see this (still rather good) version as a stepping stone to what became a honed and more polished production, and there is plenty here to demonstrate the sensation it was already on the verge of becoming.
Hugo’s work is full of compassion for the forgotten and dispossessed, as ordinary people find redemption and understanding by accepting the truth of their lives. This touching tale of a mutilated child who grows to adulthood in a travelling freakshow where he catches the attention of some lonely royal siblings is garish and grim, but Grinpayne’s determination to discover his true origins is richly told.
Many modern musicals stumble on the score, using each track to eek-out a single emotional moment, but Tim Phillips and Marc Teitler use their songs to progress the story and there is enough comic darkness within the music to vary the pace across the 2.5 hour running time and provide plenty of magical sequences. Their choices mean the audience is never unexpectedly pulled from the story and the composers consistently maintain the pseudo-eighteenth-century gothic fantasy.
Jon Bausor’s design is equally impressive in close-up, using a grubby aesthetic of gargoyles and soullessness that even stretches to the wealthy but immoral court of Queen Angelica. It is a fully realised vision, one illuminated by the warmth of Grinpayne’s poor but loving family life and, drawing on Hugo’s text, the symbolic presentation of The Grinning Man as a Christ-like figure whose beautiful pain affects everyone he encounters.
Louis Maskell has one of the most interesting musical theatre voices, an incredible instrument with such range and quality that it fills out this score, lifting the production every time he appears, and you just want to hear him sing and sing. There is a Phantom of the Opera quality to the semi-masked man, but Maskell’s Grinpayne is more sensitive and sympathetic, a tortured soul whose eyes are filled with pain, but whose goodness and forbearance is hugely symbolic.
Sean Kingsley’s Ursus (Grinpayne’s father), Gloria Onitiri’s Duchess Josiana and Julian Bleach’s calculating clown Barkilphedro lead the secondary cast with meaningful performances as each of them is transformed by their encounters with The Grinning Man, while Gyre & Gimble’s impressive child and full-size wolf puppets add a touch of magic to the retold backstory.
Using a variety of cameras, the Bristol Old Vic, for the most part, immerse the audience entirely in this charming origins-story. Although this version of The Grinning Man is not its ultimate state nor was this really filmed with the intention of being widely seen, amidst a raft of great shows online, an opportunity to see it again is a lockdown highlight. It was an unforgettable experience for those who saw it in Bristol and London, and no doubt, someday soon, The Grinning Man will return once more.
Available here until 3 July 2020