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The Grinning Man Review | Trafalgar Studios

The Grinning Man - Simon Annand
The Grinning Man – Simon Annand

You look like a cockroach having a wank”. Yeah, I know: gotta be the crassest line being delivered currently on any London stage – yes, all three hundred and fifty or so of them. At least in the context of The Grinning Man it is a kind of cathartic moment – for two reasons. 1 – with that literary abomination out of the way the cast seems to breathe a collective sigh of relief and the show really starts to take off after its tedious and rather turgid 30-minute expositional preamble. And, 2 – it’s delivered by Josiana, exquisitely played by Amanda Wilkin, who, despite the shackles of that line (and a few others of like ilk), really goes through the laboured narrative like a dose of salts providing a seductively effervescent and defiantly brash quality to proceedings that heretofore had been lacking. And she has a great voice.

Wilkin is accompanied in this purging of the dreary by her on-stage sister, Queen Angelica, played with eminent self-assurance by Julie Atherton, equalling Wilkin in style and panache and with the ability, through flashing eye and dismissive shrug, to self-satirise, gently sending up the script and elevating it above the prosaic.

These two, particularly when in tandem, lift the somewhat torturous storyline out of its rather morose morbidity into the realms of “let’s have some fun with this even if everyone else is taking it oh-so-seriously”. The show needs Wilkin and Atherton and is fortunate to have them.

The play itself, based on Victor Hugo’s novel “The Man Who Laughs”, is a kind of Elephant Man meets Carry On Folklore – i.e. travelling freak show exhibit combined with smutty double-entendres of the Oo-er Missus kind. The
Hugo novel has been through many incarnations including being the inspiration for The Joker in the Batman comics so it’s not surprising that writer Carl Grose (book and lyrics) and Director Tom Morris try to inject some comic book caricature and graphic-style imagery into their production. The end product though, I believe, is pulled in two opposite directions: entertainment versus message. The message is, according to Morris, “offering an imperfect world the possibility of its own re-imagination to accommodate the vast challenges we must face together”. Yes; you can imagine people saying: that’s fine, but lets put some laughs in. The result is humour that is rather contrived.

And there’s a certain amount of self-indulgent clutter – like the over-use of the strange wolf-dog-hog-creature called Mojo (changed from Homo in the original), a large humanoid-propelled puppet (designed and directed by Finn Caldwell and Toby Olié) which increasingly becomes an irritating distraction. I know puppets are all very clever and puppeteers (James Alexander-Taylor and Loren O’Dair) are incredibly skilled and all that but they can be seriously annoying. Like when in the first part of the story, where featured character with the extended mouth, Grinpayne (geddit?) and his blind friend Dea are expressed by puppets, we have wide stare-eyed Dea looking like a creepy ET clone. Especially when she flies.

When my children were young I spent a lot of time taking them to the theatre to see wall-to-wall Jungle Books and Borrowers and Grimms and what-have-you all employing puppets because they were kids shows. The Grinning Man is an unapologetic adult show: are puppets really a thing in adult shows these days?

Designer Jon Bausor has gone to town with the set which has forests and gallows and dungeons and travelling show caravans and circus tents galore. Bausor immerses the audience in his design as not only are we surrounded
by it in the auditorium but the corridors leading into the space are also appropriately decorated. He is cleverly aided and abetted in his quest for a period atmosphere by Rob Casey’s lighting with his individual multiple
red/white bulbs being particularly effective at the denouement.

There are some excellent songs in the show – Tim Phillips and Marc Teitler (music and orchestrations) with Gross and Morris supplying lyrics – especially towards the end of the first half and in the second part, with generally
competent soloists and rousing ensemble choruses. I have to admit, though, the first (and recurring) number Laughter is the Best Medicine took me back to my childhood excursions to doctor and dentist waiting-rooms where perusal of the Reader’s Digest was obligatory and the “Laughter is the Best Medicine” section was always the choicest read.

Louis Maskell as Grinpayne (Gwynplaine in Hugo’s original) who admittedly has a mouth bandage encumbrance, struggles to hit the top registers with his slightly grating, rusty-hinge voice but partakes in an outstanding sword fight. He does, though, provide us with a slice of that self-indulgence I mentioned above: his uber-exaggerated fist pump on his solo curtain call seems to be saying: I’m good, I know I’m good, you know I’m good. So give me your applause. It’s an ensemble, Louis. A very good ensemble. Be generous and try channelling “the artist’s democratic spirit” – as Victor Hugo would say.

4 stars

Review by Peter Yates

Cracked hearts. Strange fates. Impossible dreams.
The King is dead, but who the hell cares? A strange new act has arrived at the Stokes Croft fair, a grotesque oasis of entertainment.

Soon everyone from the gutter rats to the new Queen has fallen for the handmade freak Grinpayne and his hideously beautiful face. But who is he really? And how did he come to be so marked? Together with an old man, a blind girl and a wolf, he has a story to tell. A tale so tragic and so strange that not even he can guess how it will end.

Book Carl Grose
Lyrics Carl Grose, Tom Morris, Tim Phillips and Marc Teitler
Music Tim Phillips and Marc Teitler
Director Tom Morris
Set Designer Jon Bausor
Costume Designer Jean Chan
Movement Director Jane Gibson
Puppetry Design and Direction Finn Caldwell and Toby Olié for Gyre & Gimble
Lighting Designer Richard Howell
Sound Designer Simon Baker
Music Supervisor Tom Deering
Casting Director Will Burton CDG
Onstage Musical Director Tarek Merchant
Associate Director Ben Woolf
Rehearsal Photography Simon Annand

Cast: Stuart Angell, Alice Barclay, Stu Barker, Ewan Black, Julian Bleach, Audrey Brisson, Pete Flood, David Guy, Ross Hughes, Sean Kingsley, Patrycja Kujawksa, Louis Maskell, Tarek Merchant, Stuart Neal, Gloria Obianyo, Gloria Onitiri.

Trafalgar Studios
Performance Times:
Monday to Saturday 7.30pm
Matinees: Thursday and Saturday at 2.30pm
Booking to 14th April 2018


  • Peter Yates

    Peter has a long involvement in the theatrical world as playwright, producer, director and designer. His theatre company Random Cactus has taken many shows to the Edinburgh Fringe, the London Fringe and elsewhere and he has been associated with the Wireless Theatre Company since its inception where his short play Lie Detector can be heard: Wireless Theatre Company.

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