The Grinning Man review

Theatre, Musicals
2 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

2 out of 5 stars

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Ambitious but unwieldy gothic musical, adapted from Victor Hugo’s ‘The Man Who Laughs‘

Think ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ with irony instead of decent tunes and you’re about halfway to getting the gist of ‘The Grinning Man’, the latest contribution to the perennially ominous file marked ‘new British musicals’.

Adapted like ‘Phantom...’ from a classic French novel – in this case Victor Hugo’s 1869 ‘The Man Who Laughs’ – ‘The Grinning Man’ concerns Grinpayne (Louis Maskell), a young man permanently, hideously and mysteriously disfigured by an unknown party who carved a rictus grin into his face when he was a child. He’s now living his life as a circus sideshow, sheltered by his adopted father Ursus (Sean Kingsley) alongside Dea (Sanne den Besten), a blind girl he rescued from her dead mother’s arms as a baby.

There are things to like about this transfer from Bristol’s Old Vic. Most of them are visual: director Tom ‘War Horse’ Morris conjures a sumptuous gothic carnival ambience on what’s probably a fraction of the budget of most West End musicals. In particular the puppet work, from Gyre & Gimble, is as excellent as you’d expect – the most memorable is Ursus’s hulking pet, a giant wolf named Mojo.

Carl Grose’s book is... peculiar. He’s happiest hamming Hugo’s story up into a sort of macabre pantomime set in an alternate seventeenth century London in which the country is presided over by an amusingly degenerate royal family.

The show is semi-narrated by Barkilphedro, a miserable, grotesque clown and servant to the crown, played by Julian Bleach with a wonderful croaking deadpan. He’s the best character in ‘The Grinning Man’, but this kind of exemplifies the problem with it: Barkilphedro is virtually a creation of the playwright, having only a minor role in the novel. Grose is on a much surer footing when he’s doing his own madcap thing than when he’s actually trying to be faithful to the more straightlaced Hugo.

Much as Grinpayne’s physical disfigurement is retina-searingly lurid, he’s actually a decent, well-meaning sort who cuts a fairly bland figure – peripheral to the action for much of the first half – and sits awkwardly in a show that’s much more comfortable taking the piss.

The fundamental clash between Grose and Hugo’s visions might have been styled out by some decent songs. But the tunes – by Marc Teitler and Tim Phillips with additional lyrics by Grose and Morris – tend to be short, thin narrative pieces, with little in the way of memorable hooks, that often actually serve to get in the way of the story rather than furthering it.

‘The Grinning Man’ is a brave stab at a new musical that’s no worse and far more interesting than most bog-standard West End fodder. But opening in a week when it’s out-gothed by ‘Pinocchio’ and outclassed by ‘Hamilton’, there’s no point pretending it’s any sort of great revelation. Not quite a case of grin and bear it, but not far off.

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