Book and Lyrics: Carl Grose
Director: Tom Morris
Reviewer: Richard Maguire
Smiling all the way from Bristol’s Old Vic, where it received rave reviews, new British musical The Grinning Man now bares his teeth at London’s Trafalgar Studios. If only his bite was sharper.
The Grinning Man, or Grinpayne as he’s known to his friends, is facially disfigured with a Chelsea Smile. So hideous are his injuries, inflicted on him by a scythe when he was a child, he wraps a scarf around his mouth to avoid the stares of others. Separated from his mother when he was just a boy Grinpayne lives with Dea, whom he found orphaned as a baby in the snow, and Ursus, who exhibits both of his adopted children in his traveling freak show. Grinpayne is determined to find out who was responsible for carving up his face, and when the freak show reaches Trafalgar Fair near the ‘hog brothels of Downing Street’, he’s close to solving the mystery.
Based loosely on Victor Hugo’s 1869 novel, The Man who Laughs, this musical takes place in 17th Century London, where a king has just died, and his children vie for the crown. With wigs for the Royals, and rags for the Londoners, costume designer Jean Chan evokes a mixture of the gothic, of Tim Burton and of burlesque, and the first number Laughter is the Best Medicine appears to confirm this vaudeville vibe when a riotous Julian Bleach, as Cabaret-styled MC/narrator, Barkilphedro, sings about the joy we feel when we see someone worse off than ourselves: It’s a hymn to schadenfreude.
It’s a shame, then, that this sinister and folky aesthetic is not maintained in the other songs (apart from, maybe, I am the Freak Show), which are written by Carl Grose, Tim Phillips, Marc Teitler and Tom Morris. Too often the songs – none very memorable – drift into the ballads of musical theatre, and while all the cast are in good voice, a few seem to forget their characters’ voices once they begin to sing.
There’s also a disconnect between the two narratives. The story of Grinpayne and Dea is played fairly seriously, with Disney doses of saccharin. The story of the royal court, however, is played for laughs, and the occasional swearing obtains some easy guffaws from the audience. Too bawdy for children and yet too sentimental for adults, this otherwise ambitious show is stranded.
Like the National’s Pinocchio, the puppets in this show threaten to steal the limelight from the actors. An Irish wolfhound, half-puppet and half-human, prowls and snuffles his way across stage, while a pint-sized Grinpayne is especially tragic at the start of the show. In a nice touch of symmetry, Toby Olié is the puppet designer for both The Grinning Man and Pinocchio, with only the Thames separating them.
Louis Maskell is impressive as Grinpayne, displaying no difficulties singing through a scarf and prosthetics, and Sanne den Besten is earnest in the underwritten role of Dea, but she really has nothing to do but be the dutiful daughter and the dutiful girlfriend. More fun is to be had in with the royals in the Palace at Catford.
For all its paradoxes, The Grinning Man appears to very popular, already groaning under the weight of five star reviews and at press night the audience was quickly up on its feet, whooping wildly at the curtain calls. But, it would be good to see those teeth bite harder and pierce this occasionally schmaltzy affair.
Runs until 17 February 2018 | Image: Helen Maybanks