We’re in Bristol, sometime in the steampunk era, and a mysterious new act has arrived at the fairground. Grinpayne has a terrible secret, etched forever on his face through a permanent, terrible smile. He longs to hide himself away from the world but he needs to live. So he and his friend Dea – a blind girl who longs to be seen – form a fairground act to pay their way. When a wandering prince discovers them, their lives are turned upside down overnight.
The Grinning Man is a visual feast of a show, dripping with grimy magic. Writer Carl Grose based his script on The Man Who Laughs by Victor Hugo, a novel that has inspired many films and a handful of musicals. Though he takes a few liberties with the original story, Grose’s adaptation ultimately makes for a more dramatically satisfying piece of theatre. His deft and astute writing is accompanied by a rich musical score by Tim Phillips and Marc Teitler, which evokes the creepy charm of the Victorian fairground. Jean Chan‘s costumes doff a lavishly ruffled cap to the time, and there’s some really stunning puppetry (including a gorgeously feral wolf) from Finn Caldwell and Toby Olié that keeps the story skipping along.
There’s a lot of plot to pack in here as we unravel the story of Grinpayne’s heritage, but thanks to a versatile set and a careful storytelling, these accomplished actors sail through it all with aplomb. Barkilphedro (Julian Bleach), the creepy court clown, opens the show with a haunting opening gambit, “Laughter is the best medicine”. Sean Kingsley is a suitably ineffectual king, with his lascivious and selfish children (Stuart Neal, Patrycja Kujawska and the glorious Gloria Onitiri) all posture and squabble.
As the ‘freak wrangler’ (Ewan Black) seduces the king’s son with tawdry promises, so the story of the Grinning Man unfurls. As we learn more about Grinpayne’s family, we meet his unlucky mother (Gloria Obianyo) who delivers a beautifully heartfelt solo, pleading for compassion. Audrey Brisson as Dea – Grinpayne’s only friend – possesses steely determination underneath her gentle, tentative exterior. Grinpayne himself – played here by Louis Maskell – is hauntingly handsome and endearingly eager to find his place in the world, though bitterly scarred by all that he’s been through.
This is a cracking production from Bristol Old Vic, featuring a proper ensemble cast that catapults you into a world of magic and mystery. Together they skip through an abundance of backstory with a deft flick of the heels and manage to make the whole experience enormously fun.
“A clown is a lord when the world’s upside down”, notes Barkilphedro ruefully as the story winds to its conclusion. In some ways, this is the classic outsider story, imbued in this case with classically French melancholy. Yet at the same time, The Grinning Man is the story of anyone who’s ever felt they don’t fit in. I defy you not to be gripped by this tale.
The Grinning Man is available to watch on YouTube here