Review: The Grinning Man – Trafalgar Studios, London

Based on Victor Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs, the West End sees a new British Musical, The Grinning Man, gracing the stage of Trafalgar Studios. Audiences have been flocking to this show in droves, including celebrities who have been passing through London; its sudden surge in popularity has even given it its own extended season. So the question becomes, what is The Grinning Man and where can you get a ticket?

As you walk into Studio One at Trafalgar Studios, you are met with dilapidated walls and posters that resemble that of a burnt down circus tent. Continue on into the theatre itself and this theme is extended. The stage is built to look like a pantomime-esque performing stage with a large, shabby curtain with “The Grinning Man” crudely painted across it. Circus lights adorn the theatre, stretching up over the heads of the audience and around the walls of the theatre, which are now lined to look like the audience are inside an actual circus tent. You get the automatic feeling that somehow the theatre is going to become an extension of the stage.
Whilst the audience are piling in, a violinist and a performer playing the spoons starts a small pre-show performance, the atmosphere for the show has been set. Suddenly, the usual pre-show “turn off your phones” announcement is made and then from the depths of the winding staircase at the front of the stage, comes a macabre looking clown, Barkilphedro (played with a Jeremy Irons toned sneer by Julian Bleach). We are greeted with dark and ominous undertones as Barkilphedro presents the premise of the setting and the tale of The Grinning Man. Bleach peppers humour throughout, interacting with the audience and showing us that the show itself is self-aware – the show is simply what it is, a piece of theatre. Hence, the Brechtian style elements are introduced in order to help presents Hugo’s social, political and humanitarian messages that stretch into today’s society.

The show itself is mesmerising to watch. A mix of puppetry, clowning and macabre pantomime, The Grinning Man is the watered down story of Grinpayne (Louis Maskell) who was horrifically scarred as a boy after seeing his mother lost in a shipwreck and the memory of exactly who it was that left him with a fixed bloody grin on his face, forgotten. Maskell is superb as Grinpayne, a performance that shows vulnerability, horrific pain and instances where you question if Maskell is himself a puppet – his solo numbers ‘I am the Freak Show’ and ‘Labyrinth‘ feature him bending and contorting himself whilst singing freakishly high notes.
As Dea, Grinpayne’s love interest whom he saves as a baby, Sanne Den Besten sublimely sings her way throughout the show. She plays off Maskell well and offers a role that is more than simply just being the love interest.
Dea and Grinpayne’s adopted father Ursus, played by Les Miserables alumni Sean Kingley, offers another narrative voice to the story of the Grinning Man and harmonises beautifully with Maskell and Besten throughout the show.

Accompanying these more dramatic characters is an ensemble of comedic relief that pepper social and political messages throughout their dialogue. The three royals, the lovable and charming fool Dirry-Moir (enjoyably played by Mark Anderson), the hedonistic and sex-crazed Josiana (played with a heck of a voice by Amanda Wilkin) and the multiple personality charged Queen Angelica (ferociously played by Julie Atherton) were all crowd favourites.

The puppetry in the show, ranging from the wolf Mojo to the puppets of young Grinpayne and Dea, gave the show a creative edge and suited the quirky, pantomime atmosphere of the show. As the puppet Grinpayne picked up the baby Dea and held her in his tiny little puppet hands, my stone heart couldn’t help but shed a tear.
Another key player – or players – in the show were the band, who (under the direction of director Tom Morris and Orchestrators Tim Phillips and Marc Teitler) did not stay in the pit all the time. Throughout the show, violinists, cellos and percussion instruments were situated on the side of the theatre near the audience in order to complement a scene or add to the overall auditory atmosphere of the show itself.

The Grinning Man is one of those rare pieces of theatre that is bold in its creative choices, humorous in its clownish characters, enjoyable and heartfelt in its story telling, and politically and socially charged in its messages.
Judging by the automatic standing ovation from the entire audience at the end of the show, I believe these feelings aren’t just my own.

Get yourself a ticket before the extended run is finished!

Stin’s Final Thought: I imagine that this is what a musical based on the story of The Joker would be like, except with more death and bat puns.

The Grinning Man is now playing at Trafalgar Studios until 5th May. Ticket information and sample scores from the show are in the links below.

The Grinning Man

Sound Cloud – The Grinning Man Songs

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