If you’re an avid theatre goer, has there ever been a show that you have been putting off going to, no matter how many recommendations you’ve had, for no real reason? That was me when everyone was raving about The Grinning Man. The Grinning Man opened in December at Trafalgar Studios for a two month run, but due to high demand it has extended again and again. Now it really must close on 5th May, and with Today Tix running a 24 hour only offer last week for £15 seats I finally took the plunge. If it was extended an extra two and a half months, and if many of my blogging friends were seeing it multiple times, I decided it was time to give The Grinning Man and see the show over the weekend. And honestly, I’m just mad at myself for not going sooner.
Based on the Victor Hugo novel The Man Who Laughs (L’Homme Qui Rit in the original French), the tale of Grinpayne (Louis Maskell) is played out as part of a puppetry act in at the Trafalgar Fair. 20 years prior to the setting of The Grinning Man, Grinpayne’s face is mutilated to the point where he is forced to wear a mask over his mouth at all times, hiding the deformity – think The Joker. After being forced away from his mother, and losing her to a storm at sea, he finds a blind child being cradled by her dead mother. Grinpayne and the child, Dea (Sanne Den Besten), are raised by a welcoming stranger, Ursus (Sean Kingsley) and his pet wolf Mojo, who tells them everything he knows about their life and vows to keep them safe. But Grinpayne is not satisfied with just knowing what happened, he wants to know who caused the mutilation that separated him from his mother and won’t rest until his questions are answered.
As you can tell, it’s an incredibly dark musical. The mutilation of a young boy, orphaned children and a clown (Julian Bleach) which could easily be the thing of nightmares isn’t necessarily what you’d want to see on a sunny Saturday afternoon. But the tragedy has humorous moments, with the three royal children Dirry-Moir (Mark Anderson), Josiana (Amanda Wilkin) and Angelica (Julie Atherton) having some beautifully comic moments, and some seriously twisted lives themselves.
The first act was better than the second, with a stronger score, a faster plot, and brilliant use of puppetry, the second act seems a little lacking. With a slower plot and just a few songs, I feel like a select couple of scenes from the first act could be trimmed and the second act could be streamlined to give a one act musical in the future. The momentum is lost as the story is tied up, but the production is worth a look in for the puppetry and Maskell’s portrayal of Grinpayne alone. It is easy to forget that Mojo is simply a puppet, and that Maskell spends the majority of the time acting behind a mask. His performance is so emotive that you forget that he’s wearing a mask at all. I was in awe!
The Grinning Man truly is a brilliant new British musical, and whilst it didn’t have the most memorable score, it was enticing. I really hope that it transfers to another theatre after it closes. However, due to the intimacy of Trafalgar Studios, I’m not sure I can see it working elsewhere in terms of West End Theatres. I mean that is the beauty of productions being in venues like this: they really are intimate and you are enticed into the show. The studios are such a versatile venue that the audience can be enraptured in the scene, but in a bigger theatre I fear you would lose the detail of the show. With the actors coming out into the audience (I recommend being in the centre, and no further forward than row E), you need a smaller space for this to work.
The Grinning Man is booking until 5th May at Tralfagar Studio One.