Saturday 10th February at Trafalgar Studios, London.
Walking through the corridors to Studio One at Trafalgar Studios, we are greeted with an extension of Set Designer Jon Bausor’s work on the stage; walls dripping in blood, fading circus posters and curling bunting only just clinging to the walls… All serve to create an instantaneous impression that the production about to be seen is going to be of this same grim and ominous note – an impression fed by seeing the stage set within a giant slit mouth, complete with stitches and gruesome hues of crimson. Does the production live up to those first impressions? Yes and no. There’s more to this production of The Grinning Man than that over-arching atmosphere of gloom and the unease created around any circus-themed show billed as anything other than party entertainment. There’s surprising hilarity bred of the absurd and some gleeful moments of dark and bawdy comedy too. With Book by Carl Grose (see my production of his last work here), insightful direction by Tom Morris and inspired by Victor Hugo’s novel The Man Who Laughs, this production from the Bristol Old Vic and Trafalgar Entertainment Group is a warped world of revelations. It’s also a strangely self-aware production which sees the actors breaking the fourth wall regularly to offer a sardonic aside or to remind us that we’re watching a tale of a tale from long ago…
Following Grinpayne, the tortured young man disfigured horrendously as a child, the story sees a search for vindication and for revenge as he vows to find the man who destroyed his face. Alongside this is a comically fractured and lurid royal family whose debauchery, discord and omni-shambolic approach to rule offers them up for mild derision and tittering pity. Grinpayne’s past and future seem mixed up with this royal line somehow and as the plot unfolds, we see just how much of his life has been shaped by them. Louis Maskell is thoroughly superb as Grinpayne – delivering a pained performance layered richly with vulnerability, snatches of hope and mental torture, the performance is absolutely brilliant. Grinpayne’s story is also told with fascinating physicality; as the haze hanging over his memories begins to lift, he shudders and shakes – his limbs become unsteady and he takes on the movements of an automaton of sorts – all reminding us that he is an ‘other’. Maskell’s vocal talents are far more lucid and his performance of I am the Freak Show is a musical highlight, as is his gorgeously harmonic duet with Besten on Stars in the Sky.
Dea, Grinpayne’s blind companion, is played with a sincere sensitivity by Sanne Den Besten and the sweet, innocent characterisation of Dea compliments the construction of the duo as damaged souls in need of fixing. Both are sympathetic and both Maskell and Besten display their pains well, but the story itself falls just short of poignancy. Although it features moving content, the strength of the comedy in this show is too rich; so spot on and consistently funny is it that it’s difficult to switch from being tickled by some bawdy remark from a sex-crazed, garter-donning princess to being anything more than slightly sobered by the returns to Grinpayne’s unfortunate past. Unsympathetic characters are many and just as well played. Julian Bleach is perfectly cast as the malignantly bitter Barkilphedro who could be found pictured beneath any definition of ‘fed up’. Comically exasperated, permanently scheming but offering undertones of tragically mislaid aspirations, the character is a perfect one man chorus for Grinpayne’s tale of woe. Barkilphedro is also an ideal choice for kicking the performance off with an irked monologue and promises of doom and gloom, followed aptly by the company’s discordant performance of Laughter is the Best Medicine. Amanda Wilkin is excellent as the outrageous sex pot Josiana; desperate to feed her insatiable desires, she is hilarious in her pursuit of such fulfilment. Stealing a number of scenes with ease, Wilkin makes the character wonderfully memorable – particularly when it comes to Josiana’s reaction to seeing Grinpayne for the first time and the hilarious scenes which follow.
Leo Elso took the part of Dirry-Moir played at this performance and took the opportunity to make an indelible mark on the role; over-eager, clumsy and an undeniable fan-boy of Grinpayne in an oddly comic way, Elso presents a likeable character capable to getting big laughs with minimal efforts. Julie Atherton is exceptional as Queen Angelica; this family spinster is wonderfully petulant with an inner rage failing to show any restraint. Atherton growls, hisses and spits through her first few scenes with great relish. Mellowing a short time later, Angelica is altogether more regal and Atherton excels in portraying both sides of this fantastic character. The work of puppetry designers and directors Finn Caldwell and Toby Olié (for Gyre and Gimble) is also noteworthy. Mojo the dog-wolf is sizeable and has a permanently wrinkled snout suggesting a constant snarl, but the puppeteering offers the creature a gentler characterisation, providing another source of comedy as well as some sweeter moments. Puppeteered by James Alexander-Taylor and Loren O’Dair, Mojo has an imposing presence whenever he is on stage. O’Dair actually forms the rear end of the animal via her own legs and twisting her torso and head into the chest cavity. Despite her face being visible, it’s stunning to see how smoothly she creates the shape of the animal, achieving a warped sense of realism entirely in tune with the production as whole.
The aesthetic of The Grinning Man is wonderfully gloomy and has permanent indications of the world being off-centre in more ways than one. Jon Bausor’s set offers swift location shifts via spinning set pieces. Characters often exit the stage to use a platform placed within the audience, blurring the boundaries between them and us further while glass is shattered, rafters shake and a wagon set alight for maximum impact over the course of the performance. The warped toying with that fourth wall extends to visuals of puppets playing with puppets; the child versions of Grinpayne and Dea seem akin to Tim Burton’s work with Caldwell and Olié’s designs seeming to shun realism in favour of more unnerving visuals like a little blind girl with pearls for eyes or deep-set eyes and off-set eyebrows for the wee disfigured boy. Jean Chan’s costume designs offer up conflicting images of modern jeans and heavy Doc Martin-type boots paired with period pieces befitting the royals and fairy fabrics adorning dear Dea, seeming to elevate her goodness to a spiritual level. The addition of Makeup and Prosthetic Designs from Susanna Peretz are very much the garnish for a grimly conceived aesthetic; Dea’s complexion is ghost-white while Grinpayne’s features are exaggerated with dark, wide eyebrows to match the major impact of the blood stained bandage worn throughout. The prosthetic below the bloodied bandage is Phantom-like in drama and also in impact; not intended to be grisly or truly shocking, but effective in offering a glimpse of the true extent of Grinpayne’s injuries.
The Grinning Man certainly entertains and there are few flaws of note. Yes, there are scenes which seem to run just a little too long and while there are some beautiful songs (Lyrics by Carl Grose, Tom Morris, Tim Phillips and Marc Teitler and Music and Orchestration Phillips and Teitler), most are simple segues without much flourish and within that combination, it feels like a welcome heartbreaking ballad somehow didn’t quite make the cut. But regardless, it’s an engaging tale and offers a variety of distinctive and entertaining characters played by an accomplished cast. The narrative is a mix, and I’m not convinced that it can be categorised with certainty; there’s too much comedy for this to achieve tragedy status, but there’s too much darkness to make it a comedy – it’s certainly a tragi-comedy of sorts but the contemporary flair to the design and performance style seem to set it apart. I quite like seeing productions which shirk categorisation in this way though – I think it makes them all the more engaging.
The Grinning Man plays at Trafalgar Studios until April 14th and you can get your tickets here.