They can be a hard to please crowd, that Bristol Old Vic audience, so theatre savvy are they, so used to viewing top-notch quality work in this old and very beautiful building. But last night, even this practised bunch were forced to admit that they had just witnessed something special as they rose to their feet in a rapturous standing ovation for The Grinning Man, a musical adaption of Victor Hugo’s “L’Homme Qui Rit.”
The Old Vic’s very own Tom Morris (Director) has teamed up with Writer Carl Grose and Composers Marc Teitler and Tim Phillips to create a larger than life production that will surely be around for years because if anything has legs, this does.
This ‘utterly horrid’ tale of misery is ‘strangely uplifting’ we are assured by the macabre Barkilphedro, played with camp delectability by Julian Bleach who is an evil mash up of Richard O’Brien, Ray Bolger’s Scarecrow and Jack Skellington. ‘Laughter is the best medicine’ he sings, contorting, writhing, sneering, almost in danger of upstaging everyone else. And who better to provide that laughter in a world devoid of joy than the Grinning Man himself, a figure who was mutilated as an orphaned child so that his face became a grim Jokeresque perpetual smile? If only he could remember how it happened …
The disfigured Grinpayne (Louis Maskell) and his life-long love, blind Dea (Audrey Brisson) have been raised by Ursus (Sean Kingsley), man of potions who, along with his devoted (puppet) wolf, Mojo, rescued them as children from certain death in the snow. In recompense for his kindness, they recount their (imagined) story as entertainment to the dirty and downtrodden poor of Stokes Croft Fair, while the rich and ruling behave abominably in a fantastical, nightmarish, feudal Bristol, part 19th Century, part now, part never. To see Grinpayne’s messanic smile is to be infected with a joy that only he can bring.
Phillips and Teitler have written a score to contend, nay supersede, anything spewing out of the West End and the small band of 4 (unbelievably, 4!) musicians keep it quirky and fresh. Brisson’s voice is so strong, so perfect that Mark was convinced for a while that a recording was playing. Maskell matches her well, his depth complimenting her power. Gloria Onitiri is deliciously OTT as the flirtatious, insatiable, sex-crazed Duchess Josiana as she sings a number overtly reminiscent of Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good”.
Grose impregnates the dark with comedy and phrases modern – “You’ll shit kittens” and “Fuck Me!” As Ursus says to his wards, effervescent with happiness at the growing crowds that his 2 ‘freaks’ are drawing to their woe show, “we made so much money yesterday, I hired professional puppeteers.” And haven’t they just! Gyre and Grimble’s puppetry is stunning, Stuart Angell and Alice Barclay manoeuvring the huge and menacing yet cuddly Mojo around a set that screams pain, love and fear. A ripped and bloody mouth is the stage that houses the cast, a mouth that throbs from teeth to uvula – deep, real, obscene. Designer Jon Bausor has created a set that fuses printed cloths with street art and an aptly gruesome 90’s smiley (we expect to see his take on that icon of rave-culture becoming something of a work of art in its own right). And oh my gosh, I don’t know what movement director Jane Gibson gets the cast to do with those mirrors or what Richard Howell is up to with those lights, but did Grinpayne look into my eyes, my soul? Did he really single me out amongst all those people because no-one has managed that since David Blaine communicated similarly pleadingly with me from his transparent box high above the Thames some years back. Bizarre. And in keeping with the entire production, Jean Chan’s costumes transcend barriers of place and time, resulting in her own wow variation on steam-punk.
Ah, but there is no weak link in The Grinning Man. You need to go and see it
The Grinning Man runs at Bristol Old Vic until 13th November
Image by Simon Annand, with thanks