It’s been a decent year for new, great British musicals. While everyone is still talking about Jamie, Conor McPherson’s Bob Dylan musical Girl From the North Country is gearing up for a West End transfer, and a personal highlight of the year is the Menier’s peppy production of Adrian Mole. At Trafalgar Studios, direct from Bristol, there’s another success story brewing in The Grinning Man which, much like a certain other musical in the West End, is based on a novel by Victor Hugo.
We meet Grinpayne, a boy whose face has been so hideously mutilated he’s forced to hide his face underneath a mask. We learn how his situation came to be: how he lost his mother, stumbled across a stranded baby, Dea, and was raised by a stranger, Ursus. The make-shift family make their living telling the story, using puppets (to great effect), but Grinpayne longs to know how he became the freak he is, and who is responsible.
It’s quite a thick plot; while there isn’t really any subplot, there’s a lot going on, but it is stellar storytelling by book-writer Carl Grose. There’s so much to take in during early scenes, but the piece is aided infinitely by Jon Bausor’s brilliant set which is a rolling conveyor belt of gothic designs for director Tom Morris.
The satisfying score fuses soul and rock with late Romantic even Baroque, the musical’s most memorable song is the first, “Laughter is the Best Medicine”. From there, while the songs are well crafted and thoroughly enjoyable, they aren’t likely to be stuck in your head for too long.
While Louis Maskell’s face is covered for most of the performance, he’s still able to deliver a monstrously emotive performance. And when we do get glimpse at what he's hiding (and we do, eventually, up close and personally), Susanna Peretz's gruesome prosthetics can be appreciated in all their glory. Julian Bleach channels his inner Richard O’Brien as the royal family’s clown and servant in one of the funniest roles of quite a darkly comic story.
The show’s rather triumphant finale is underpinned by chants of “hallelujah, praise to the Grinning Man”, and I’d be inclined to agree. It comes in at over two and a half hours, and it would benefit from losing ten minutes to keep up the second act’s pace, but it had me grinning.
What the popular press said...
"A War Horse for weirdos? A Phantom for freaks? A Les Mis for misfits? No, however much I try to put this stunning new British musical into a box, it crawls out and demands to be seen as its own deliciously strange thing. "
- Dominic Maxwell, The Times (four stars)
"Excellent Louis Maskell (singing through a mask) has to hoist himself up to some lonely melodic heights as the mutilated man flays himself and bares his soul to us."
- Paul Taylor, the Independent (four stars)
"And the final, desperately moving moments put me in mind of the reconciliation scenes in Shakespeare’s late romances. A dark-hearted Christmas treat."
- Claire Allfree, the Telegraph (four stars)