Review: The Grinning Man at Trafalgar Studios

The Grinning Man

Grim and grotesque and gorgeous and gentle

‘It’s so tragic, it must be true’: so goes the tale of Grinpayne, the man with a perpetual grin marked out from ear to ear whose memory of his past is so marred by magic and grief that he can’t remember how he got it. The Grinning Man is a gothic musical that manages to be both grim and grotesque and gorgeous and gentle, so roll up! roll up! to the Trafalgar Fair, and see for yourself how his grin got there.

The Bristol Old Vic production balances the heroics and horror of Victor Hugo’s tale with haunting beauty and hilarious innovation. The Grinning Man amalgamates the mythic and the metatheatric: the streets of Lonnn-donn, the stages of the freak show, the chaises of a corrupt seventeenth-century court, and the trees of a fairytale forest create a folkloric but familiar historical time to face some human truths, but the storytelling is a feast of theatrical talent. From Carl Grose’s gritty but gorgeous prose, to Gyre and Gimble’s magical puppetry – especially James Alexander-Taylor and Loren O’Dair’s impressive performance as Mojo the wolf – to the lyrical and whimsical but rocking music, The Grinning Man‘s many theatrical marvels weave together like the many threads of the tale into a rich and riotous whole.

The Grinning Man revels in horror and hilarity, but also generously reveals its heart and humanity: Grinpayne and Dea, the bright, brave and blind girl he grows up with, blossom beautifully from puppets into people, and, as their puppeteer-come-pharmacist father, Sean Kingsley’s song ‘Stars in the Sky’ is an achingly tender promise to protect his adopted children at any cost. Louis Maskell is a charismatic leading man, lending not only his inimitable vocal talent but an intimate vulnerability to the Grinning Man, and Sanne den Besten’s Dea, also wonderfully sung, is a wide-eyed but determined young woman, and the only character to be dressed in lilacs and lavenders: colours as light as her white hair.

Other than Dea, the aesthetic is dark and eerily undead: the powdered wigs and waistcoats feel of this world, but the pale, drawn faces with dark under-eyes add a fearful affect that fits well with the freak show discomfort. At the close of Act I, our first glimpse of Grinpayne’s grin is at a freak show performance where we’re forced to act as the audience, drawn in to the grotesque whilst acutely aware of the gentleness within, and The Grinning Man is a show that works from the outside in: even the walls of the Trafalgar Studios are plastered with posters for the fair that awaits us. And, all the fun and frights of the fair come to life with funny and frightening performances across the company, especially Mark Anderson’s dandyish, dirty-mouthed Dirry-Moir and Julian Bleach’s brilliantly abrasive and cutting clown who comes with more jibes and uncontrollable jealously than jokes.

The Grinning Man is a magical gothic musical from Tom Morris, making the grotesque gentle and the grim gorgeous; a theatrical thrill with a human heart.

Trafalgar Studios, London, 17th February 2018 matinee, cast: Louis Maskell, Sanne Den Besten, Julian Bleach, Sean Kingsley, Mark Anderson, click picture for link to The Grinning Man

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