Victor Hugo’s novels have proved to attract and inspire the creation of wonderful theatre. From the world famous Les Miserables and Disney’s theatrical adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame the latest addition to this collection is L’Homme qui rit (The Man Who Laughs) which has been adapted into Tom Morris’ (War Horse) The Grinning Man. Hugo is my favorite author with The Man Who Laughs is one of my favorites and I’m glad to see this adaptive tradition still continuing and going strong.
This production is the definition of brand new. After premiering at the Bristol Old Vic in October 2016 it transferred into Trafalgar Studios’ Studio One, In London’s West End, from December 2017. It has already extended it’s run once and I was so happy that I got the chance to see it. In this review, I’ll be reviewing both this specific production, including some changes from the Bristol production, and the overall narrative of the piece.
The narrative of The Grinning Man entirely belongs to the leading man Grinpayne portrayed amazingly by Louis Maskell. Grinpayne is ‘The Grinning Man’ himself who travels to the Trafalgar Fair in Lonnn’Donn to display his unique grizzly face and his childhood story through puppetry alongside his adoptive sister and lover Dea, adoptive father Urus and Mojo. Grinpayne, however, is constantly preoccupied with his childhood promise to find the one who inflicted him with his grin and kill them. Louis Maskell’s talent really shines through as Grinpayne. He performs about 90% of the show with the bottom half of his face covered but he doesn’t let it impact on his singing voice and the emotions in his face transfer brilliantly. His construction of Grinpayne’s relationship with his identity and disfigurement is very original and comes across so well during ‘Labyrinth’. While lyrically I prefer the Bristol Old Vic version of this solo (a video of Maskell’s performance of that version is on YouTube thank goodness) the West End version ties in the events of the narrative to that point while keeping hold of Grinpayne’s unique view of his own situation and I still love the song.
Grinpayne is a unique character who is very loveable and creepy all at the same time. I think this is down to the sheer completeness of Maskell’s construction of Grinpayne within the narrative. A lot of Grinpayne’s lovability does come from his relationship with Dea but also from his relationship with his status as a ‘freak’ but Maskell makes it clear that there certainly is a creepy side there during both ‘Labyrinth’ and especially ‘I Am the Freak Show’. I also have to give a huge mention to the makeup and costume department for the look of Grinpayne. The stage makeup of his real grin is stunning and the construction of the reveal during ‘I Am the Freak Show’ is truly exhilarating as the tension is built. My only real criticism of the show is that I feel that ‘I Am the Freak Show’ would work as a better ‘end of Act One’ song due to the stunning lighting design during the reveal and the literal reveal of the stage makeup.
Grinpayne is also an excellent example of choreography blending into the construction of the character. His twitching is constant throughout and drawn out to the perfect height of tension in ‘I Am the Freak Show’ and is implemented during a beautiful blend from twitching to fluid fight choreography during the Finale which captures Grinpayne’s new relationship with a particular character.
Sanne Den Besten gives a simultaneously heartwarming and heartbreaking performance as the blind Dea. Besten and Maskell’s voices both blend together and stand alone to add another level to the already hauntingly beautiful score. ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and ‘Born Broken’ have been only two of the songs which have been swimming in my head since. It is a crime that there isn’t a recording of this cast and the music and as soon as one is released I will buy it instantly. For now, their YouTube channel features celebrities performing some of the songs which are able to tide me over until I see the show again. The music of The Grinning Man has a very unique sound which is heightened by Besten’s and Maskell’s voices. Both of the leads but especially Maskell has created characters who are truly unique; I can’t imagine anyone other than them playing these roles but I also know that what they have created will be an excited and exhilarating challenge for any actor to take on in the future.
Obviously, when you talk about The Grinning Man you have to talk about the grin underneath his mask. I will say now I went into this production blind concerning this reveal and the ending. If you have already booked to see the show I implore you to go into the reveal and the ending blind, please only read the bold part of the next sentence. However, if you sit in row J, which is where I was sat, you will get a close-up look of his costume, his real grin, and Dea and this ending is one of the most magical and beautiful moments of musical theatre I have ever experienced.
The main aspect which originally drew me to The Grinning Man when I knew nothing about how they were going to adapt it was the puppetry. Tom Morris has already proved to be an old hand of handling puppetry on stage with War Horse. However, the puppet of Mojo brings something new to the table as the back half of Mojo is constructed almost entirely by the second actor portraying Mojo. This was really exhilarating and original to see and the Mojo puppet is genuinely stunning and I completely agree that this is the best puppetry since War Horse. Also, the puppets who portrayed the younger Grinpayne and Dea were very intriguing. I also loved their relationships with their adult counterparts. The hoods introduced whilst Besten and Maskell were puppeteering added to the mysterious elements of the piece and the transition from the puppets to their adult characters was so well done. The puppets were also never forgotten throughout the show, even those of the children, and I loved each of their segments as they never felt out of place or tacked on. This really aided in building the relationships between the parents and the children especially Grinpayne’s mother and father as you learn more about his childhood. The scenic design, I believe, is what solidified this blend of the puppetry and the human actors on stage. Even in the adult Grinpayne’s movements and the settings around him you always felt the presence of puppetry in the most beautiful way.
The comedic elements of this new musical solidified the setting and conversations between characters. There were effortless shifts to the seriousness of Grinpayne’s personal situations and relationships with each person he encounters but these surrounding characters were so colorful in their own right. The main example of this is Julian Bleach’s hilarious performance as Barkilphedro. His comic timing combined with Julie Atherson’s Queen Angelica had me in stitches every time. However, when he became part of the drama his motivations and actions were never misplaced with his comedy which provided an excellent foil to the creepy but lovable Grinpayne.
I instantly came out of the theatre wanting to watch it again and again. I have never felt so in love with a show after watching it with no prior knowledge beforehand. I have been listening to some of the songs on repeat and I’m already looking to book a second trip. I truly, truly love this musical as I believe it’s a beautifully new but intriguing story with characters who you can easily see yourself in and the story is one of forgiveness, identity, and acceptance. If anyone has been thinking about seeing this show I implore you to see it. They have already extended once and I truly hope that The Grinning Man will run for years and years to come as I truly love this show.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on The Grinning Man either from this review or your own opinion if you’ve seen it.
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