The Grinning Man may not be the most technically assured piece of work I have seen this year, other shows have continuously hit the five star range that can’t always be said of the more baggy elements here, but there probably hasn’t been a show I’ve fallen for more. It feels like a compendium of Tom Morris’ greatest hits, a dark humour constantly scratching under gothic framework, sterling puppet work from Finn Caldwell and Toby Olie for Gyre and Gimble that includes a wolf to rival Joey, and a finale that steals its last feel-good image direct from earlier Christmas hit Swallows and Amazons. Morris has come into his own during Bristol Old Vic’s 250th anniversary, his directing work can now be said to stand direct comparison to his glittering alchemy for producing.
Maybe hoping magic can strike twice, the gothic novel by Victor Hugo at first glance seems a strange fit for a musical retelling. The same was undoubtedly said about a tale of a failed student uprising in the streets of Paris as well. Grinpayne works in a freak show, his face cut into a permanent horrifying grin, loved by a blind girl who he discovered in the snow when they were both children. His quest to find out who cut him and why is at the crux of the story, though it bends off into countless diversions and avenues over its three hours running time before eventually unravelling its secrets.
Tim Philips and Marc Teitler’s score has plenty of earworms if no take away humdinger and they are given persuasive, well voiced life by a strong cast. Louis Maskell as Grinpayne sings sturdily through a mask throughout, his vocal tone lightened since he made such a striking Tony in West Side Story a few years ago, he now combines a light romantic tenor with an angst that comes to most prominence when he reveals his deformity to the world in a striking moment of total theatre. Audrey Brisson, the best thing about The Flying Lovers Of Vitebsk earlier in the summer, is a drawback from a previous era, a Louise Brooks bundle of loveliness that combines physical vulnerability with a strength of soul that barely bends yet alone snaps in the face of grave adversity. There is also terrific support from Sean Kingsley as the quasi father figure and freak show owner, Gloria Onitiri as a sex crazed Duchess and Stuart Neal as a posh Sloane who finds spiritual enlightenment in the show of the scarred face.
Best of all though is Julian Bleach’s narrator slash antagonist. He is creepy and comic in equal measures, a pantomime jester with a switch blade, a man not opposed to cutting a throat if the situation requires it. There is the vaudeville and the monster within him, a risky performance that pays off in spades.
Ultimately The Grinning Man feels a little like a Tim Burton fairy tale decidedly not for kids. It will most likely alienate as many people as it embraces. Does it have the commercial clout to get it a transfer that the cost of the enterprise alone suggests it needs. It hangs in the balance I think needed a thorough edit of the more baggy elements and perhaps more serious exploration of the climax where the saccharine feels a bitter pill to swallow in comparison with the exquisite howl of pain ending of the novel. Yet for all this, the magical imagery and haunting melodies have barely left my head in the days since. If justice is done it should follow the success stories of recent hits Jane Eyre and Pink Mist into getting a further fruitful life.