Based on Victor Hugo’s novel The Man Who Laughs, The Grinning Man tells the dark and gothic story of Grinpayne, a young man with a horrifically mutilated face. He attempts to flee the horrors of his childhood, saving a baby (a girl later named Dea) from a snow storm and coming to be raised by a travelling showman named Ursus. He grows up performing in these travelling freak shows, forced to encourage the audience to laugh at the horror of his face and trying to work out the mystery of his past as every day passes and he remembers less and less of it. He struggles to remember his parent’s faces, he cannot remember how he came to have such a terrible facial injury. He yearns to know the truth, and his journey to discover it leads him into encounters with royalty and the strange going ons of the freak show.
Recorded a couple of years ago at the Bristol Old Vic, this production is deliciously dark and twisted. It brilliantly combines performance with puppetry as we see the young Grinpayne and Dea as beautiful puppets, delighting over the story of Beauty and the Beast, then these same puppets later used in their adoptive father’s grinning man show depicting Grinpayne’s tragic story. The use of puppetry is slowly but surely becoming more popular in musical theatre, and puppets are similar in those those used in Amelie (which coincidently also starred Audrey Brisson who plays Dea in this production). Throughout the show, you become strangely attached to these puppets, they are quirky and odd but also strangely sweet.
Louis Maskell plays the role of Grinpayne and it really is a spectacular performance, a true masterclass in performance and acting through song. Grinpayne is such a tragic character, but also a beautiful one. You can feel every ounce of his pain, both the physical pain from his face and his emotional pain as he struggles to piece together his horrendous past and come to terms with all that he has been through. Vocally impressive throughout, with particular highlights being ‘I am the freak show’ and act two opener ‘Labyrinth’. I found myself constantly amazed at how he was able to sing like that and convey such emotion through not one but two masks, and was drawn into the character instantly. The partnership between Maskell and Audrey Brisson as Dea is enchanting, and whilst feeling a little twisted, you become invested in their relationship and want to see them reach a place where they feel safe. Having impressed immensely as Amelie more recently, it would seem that Brisson has a real knack for playing strange quirky, yet easy to love characters. Without her sight, Dea is extremely trusting but also extremely brave, willing to do anything for Grinpayne and determined to help him to discover the truth about his past. Brisson also boasts excellent vocals, impressing throughout and performing a number of beautiful duets with Maskell such as ‘Born Broken’ and ‘Beauty and the Beast’.
Julian Bleach opens the show and appears throughout as Barkilphedro, a royal court clown who dreams of life as a duke. He has a dark past, and a twisted soul. He desperately tries to cover up his secrets, and bullies Grinpayne for his deformity. This is the character that you love to hate, but also a character who brings a great deal of comedy to the show with his manic energy especially in scenes with Duchess Josiana (Gloria Onitiri) and Lord David Dirry-Moir (Stuart Neal). Sean Kingsley plays Ursus, the travelling potion making showman who takes Grinpayne and Dea as children and raises them in the freak show, and boasts impressive vocals throughout. Ursus, like many of the characters in The Grinning Man, has tragedy in his past, and his true story arch throughout is his struggle to come to terms with that tragedy.
Lord David Dirry-Moir, played by Stuart Neal is a very humorous character, buzzing around delighting in his wealth as he discovers the thrills of the freak show and the terrible beauty of Grinpayne and his constantly grinning face. He becomes almost obsessed with the show, telling everyone he knows that they simply have to see the grinning man, even introducing Duchess Josiana to the man with the smile. Gloria Onitiri plays the Duchess, a royal struggling with the demands to settle down who becomes passionate about Grinpayne, demanding to see him. Patrycja Kujawska plays the ever demanding Queen Angelica, wanting to rule over her citizens and rid the town of the freak show
A wonderful ensemble keeps the action moving forwards at an exciting pace, switching roles throughout from freaks at the show to audience members obsessed with Grinpayne’s sickening grin, to royal guards and horrified passer bys. The energy never drops, and with such a dark and twisted tale to tell, it’s great to see that the cast were also having so much fun with it. The choreography is clever and intricate and the use of puppetry in Ursus’ wolf Mojo is genius, it gives the show a unique edge, and really makes it stand out from the crowd.
The music is beautiful, and haunting in places, with the energy switching throughout from emotional ballads to high energy ensemble numbers such as ‘Laughter is the best medicine’ and ‘A scar is born!’. These switches in song style both keeps the action moving and dictates the mood of the characters, such as when we see Grinpayne’s emotions and pain overtake him as he strays away from the normal freak show plan in ‘I am the freak show’.
Overall, The Grinning Man is a thrilling tale of pain and truth. It’s twisted and dark, it’s clever and beautiful. The use of puppetry is inspired and the cast give a masterclass in performance. You are drawn into the strange and horrible lives of the characters and want to see them find the truth in their own histories. I want to nicely sum it up, and I can only think of one way to do it, and that’s to quote another musical, Wicked. The Grinning Man is both ‘tragically beautiful’ and ‘beautifully tragic’.