The Grinning Man continues at the Bristol Old Vic until 13 November.
Star rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ✩
Bristol Old Vic has an enviable reputation for producing original musicals. So it is no surprise that this striking new work has been included in the theatre’s 250th anniversary celebrations.
It could not be more different, however, from the company’s most successful London transfer – Julian Slade’s musical soirée Salad Days, the West End’s longest-running musical until Oliver! arrived on the scene.
Salad Days is gentle and genteel. The Grinning Man, based on a Gothic novel by Victor Hugo, is an outrageous and rumbustious mix of love story, parable, puppetry and pounding score that might have stepped straight out of a Tim Burton fantasy movie.
There is much that is allegorical in the narrative, even in this pared down version from Kneehigh Theatre’s Carl Grose, a regular collaborator with the BOV. The title character, manipulated as a lifelike child puppet and then sympathetically played by Louis Maskell, is a circus freak called Grinpayne, deliberately scarred in childhood and left with a permanent rictus smile.
The setting is rather surprisingly 17th century England, and the mutant’s strange beauty, internally and externally, turns him into something of a Messiah figure when summoned to court by an infatuated Queen.
This is the catalyst for a bizarre plot, embracing both Grinpayne’s horrific back story and the effect on him of his new-found fame. The familiar Victor Hugo theme of the down-and-out lower strata of society finding redemption through hope and the power of love is also much in evidence.
All this might sound slightly pretentious. But it is wrapped up in such a variety of fairy tale styles, wild comic asides, and a score from composers Tim Phillips and Marc Teitler, that switches at will from a pummelling carnival influence to the quietest of piano accompaniments, that it holds the attention even in the over-long Act II.
The musical is virtually sung-through and is fortunate to have BOV artistic director Tom Morris at the helm. His penchant for unusual and complicated work can be traced back to the National Theatre co-production of War Horse, and here he collaborates, again with great success, with that play’s original puppeteers Gyre and Gimble.
Designer Jon Bausor’s sombre sets intertwine effectively with the message of the story, while alongside Maskell’s Grinpayne and the strong ensemble work, there are outstanding performances from Julian Bleach as the fawning, evil clown; Audrey Brisson as the hero’s faithful blind lover; and Gloria Onitiri as an easy-going duchess who is also rather enamoured of him.
There is, of course, another Victor Hugo musical adaptation running in the West End. I feel, though, that even if The Grinning Man does move to a London theatre, its macabre nature would count against it repeating anything like the same success