Entering Studio One at Trafalgar Studios there was a real sense that no-one really knew what to expect from The Grinning Man. The 150-year-old novel is one of the author’s least well-known works, and despite a film version a few years back, how would a musical about a hideously disfigured man that involves puppetry actually work?
The Victor Hugo novel, on which The Grinning Man is based, is decidedly dark, and the stuff of nightmares. To give the musical version and little less of a terrifying vibe, we are told that the setting is an alternate reality where everything is strangely familiar, but most definitely different. The city of London, pronounced Lonnn’donn resembles some kind of Dickensian purgatory, where the Royal Palace is in Catford, and the Tower is a nightclub (and occasional torture chamber).
In the complicated story, a young child, Grinpayne, is separated from his parents and maliciously mutilated, giving him the look of a permanent grin. He comes across the body of a dead woman and her barely breathing baby daughter, Dea, whom he rescues.
Both children are taken in by Ursus, and his wolf Mojo, many years later they are part of a travelling fair, and royal half-blood Dirry-Moir takes an interest in Grinpayne’s past. The court jester, Barkilphedro, is concerned by the re-appearance of Grinpayne, whom he remembers all to well from his past.
The use of puppetry really sets this production apart, the flashbacks to Grinpayne’s childhood work remarkably well thanks to the expert use of puppets to tell the story. The wolf, Mojo, looks utterly realistic in its movements, with the fantastic skills of operators Loren O’Dair and James Alexander-Taylor.
Mark Anderson is deliciously flamboyant as Dirry-Moir, while Sanne Den Besten gives a beautiful performance as Dea. Julian Bleach’s Barkilphedro is simply wonderful, capturing the spirit of the nefarious clown, and Louis Maskell really makes the role of Grinpayne his own, the pain and suffering is quite literally etched on his face.
Despite the rather morose story, Carl Grose has made this a thoroughly entertaining musical, almost a parody of the original novel. From the alternate reality to the slight change to the lead character’s name, plus a few jokes about the puppetry, all add up to a very funny and highly entertaining production.
The Grinning Man also looks visually stunning, the Trafalgar Fair theme is transposed throughout, with the set, costumes and make-up all having a ghoulish fairground feel. The score is also particularly enjoyable with plenty of strong songs that allow the cast to flex their talents.
Leaving the theatre, I heard a few people saying “It’s not what I expected”, and they meant it as a compliment. On paper, everything about this musical feels wrong, yet in the production it’s absolutely right; it looks and sounds fantastic with a plot that genuinely keeps you gripped throughout. The Grinning Man certainly made me smile, and shows that there’s still room to bring innovation to older pieces of work.