Trafalgar Studios, London
20th January 2018
‘Never have I seen pork so lodged!’
The above quote refers to a surreal incident involving a dead King and a pig’s trotter. My boyfriend insisted I use this as the opening to this review, and, to be fair to him, it sums up the irreverent tone that permeates the musical pretty well. Adapted from Victor Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs, Carl Grose, Tim Phillips, Marc Teitler and director, Tom Morris’ The Grinning Man is a deliciously dark and wickedly entertaining cocktail of debauchery, Gothicism and carnival. We are treated to an enticing blend of the gruesomeness of Brother’s Grimm (if you haven’t read it, look up The Girl Without Hands as a good example), the aesthetics of a Tim Burton film, and Hugo’s upstanding social consciousness, all delivered with the tongue-in-cheek silliness of Monty Python’s Spamalot.
Horrifically maimed as a boy, Grinpayne (Louis Maskell) is on a mission to seek out his attacker and get his revenge. Armed with only the vaguest information about his childhood (a shipwreck, a singing corpse, and a baby lost in the snow) he is determined to discover the truth from his adopted father, Ursus (Sean Kingsley), with the help of his friend Dea (Saane den Besten). However, when the foppish prince Dirry Moir (Mark Anderson) takes a special interest in his disfigurement, Grinpayne is thrust into the limelight, becoming both a scapegoat and martyr for the humours, desires and anguishes of the realm’s ravenous hoards.
Before the show even begins we are plunged into the uncanny world of Lonnn’donn. Jon Bausor sets the action within a giant proscenium mouth, complete with rope stitching holding together the sliced cheeks, and we are surrounded by fairground bunting and fading posters advertising the menagerie of wonders to be seen at the local freak show. This sets a precedent for the production as a whole, as the action regularly bleeds out into the realms of immersion, audience interaction, and meta-theatre.
What follows is a classic romp involving secret identities, goodies vs baddies, and the power of love. Yet Grose and co. have given these well-worn tropes a sly twist of licentiousness. For example, Dirry Moir’s incestuous relationship with his nymphomaniac sister, Josiana (Amanda Wilkin), is threatened by her paraphilic lust for Grinpayne. Julian Bleach’s clown-cum-emcee, Barkilphedro, is conniving and covetous, yet strangely likable in his dastardly ways. Much of the musicals’ promo material impels us to be ‘seduced by the Grinning Man’, and, admittedly there is a peculiar eroticism to the freak show shenanigans. The morbid curiosity surrounding Grinpayne is shared by the audience – I wanted desperately to see beneath his mask, and the reveal (‘I Am The Freak Show’) is an electrifying crescendo, and very satisfying indeed. So - and this did come as somewhat of a surprise to me - this is a very adult fairytale. And, choc full of one liners (‘it’s like watching a cockroach having a wank’ – my favourite) and flamboyant characters, a very funny one, too.
Julian Bleach is clearly having a blast as Barkilphedro. He has an effortless rapport with the audience and frequently has us cracking up with his self-referential asides – his extended vibrato during the opening number, ‘Laughter Is The Best Medicine’, is a neat introduction to the show’s discomfiting humour. Bleach may be typecast in these sort of roles – devious villains with a penchant for chewing the scenery (most recently seen in the National’s Saint George and the Dragon) – but it’s because he’s damn good at it. A nuanced counterpoint to the showier, more caricatured characters, Louis Maskell strikes an imposing figure as the tortured Grinpayne. Earnest, brave, loyal and loving, Maskell makes a bold impression without needing any of the slapstick or crudities divvied out elsewhere (they’re incredibly amusing, I’m just stressing the successful balance of tone). His lower face masked for the majority of the show, Maskell utilises all the subtleties of his physical and vocal performance to convey the character’s thoughts and feelings. Swerving, twisting, convulsing and leaping with uninhibited precision (I know that seems like an oxymoron, but I can’t think of a better way of describing it), Maskell’s physical presence suggests bodily possession from external forces - as if he is an extension of the puppet Grinpayne (also operated and voiced by Maskell) seen earlier in the show. Pained and piercing vocals ensure we feel all of Grinpayne’s wretchedness, while elsewhere Maskell’s voice reaches euphoric beauty that makes his numbers a joy to listen to. While the entire cast are superb, I would feel cheated if both Bleach and Maskell missed out on recognition this awards season.
Phillips and Teitler’s score is pleasant, melodic and moves the story along nicely. For me, stand out songs include the aforementioned ‘Laughter Is The Best Medicine’ and ‘I Am The Freak Show’, as well as Grinpayne and Josiana’s subversive ‘love/lust’ song, ‘Brand New World Of Feeling’, and the charming ‘Stars In The Sky’ which becomes a lovely leitmotif for hope and friendship. However, this is a musical that is greater than the sum of its parts. It needs to be appreciated as a whole, in all its carnivalesque theatricality.
A neat revolving caravan transports us from Josiana’s bedroom to Ursus, Grinpayne and Dea’s home-cum-stage, and brilliantly provides scope for the dumbshow-esque story of the maimed boy. Finn Caldwell and Toby Olie’s puppets, and their tender operation by the cast, are breathtaking. Not since War Horse have I felt this much empathy for what is essentially an inanimate object. There is no illusion, young Grinpayne and Dea live and breathe as any real child does, Mojo the wolf prowls the stage with an authentic animalistic gait, and there is even a moment where the puppets themselves operate other miniature puppets – a level of metatheatre brand new to me! These endearingly old fashioned storytelling techniques, and the reliance on manual effects - such as the creation of sweeping waves by members of the company wafting curved swathes of blue across the stage - add greatly to the intimate matchbox aesthetic; this feels like a heartfelt collaboration between a group of people truly in love with their craft.
This unashamed theatricality, combined with the transposing and satirising of Hugo’s sentimental social commentary, puts me in mind of the type of rollicking drama seen in Brecht and Weill’s The Threepenny Opera, where hummable songs and broad humour provide a slick veneer atop pointed barbs of political commentary. Collaborative in every best sense, The Grinning Man offers a gleeful night of raucous revelry, wherein the audience become complicit in the storytelling madness.
The Grinning Man plays at the Trafalgar Studios, Lonnn’donn until 14th April.