“In you, I found all the pleasure and pain I could ever hope to feel”
All the best birthday celebrations go on for a while and Bristol Old Vic’s 250th Anniversary programme has been no exception, featuring productions from each of the four centuries of the theatre’s life. I took in the Lesley Manville opus Long Day’s Journey Into Night earlier in the year and returned to the South West with great anticipation for the 21st century strand of work, which is the macabre, and excellent, new musical The Grinning Man.
Based on the Victor Hugo novel L’Homme Qui Rit (The Man Who Laughs), the show tells the dark tale of Grinpayne, a young man mutilated as a child who scrapes a living as part of a carnival troupe with his adopted family. Grinpayne keeps the lower part of his face covered but the highlight of the fair comes when he reveals his scarred ‘smile’, a sight that moves people in unpredictable ways, not least the royal family in whose intrigues Grinpayne finds himself increasingly embroiled.
Written by Carl Grose and directed by BOV AD Tom Morris, The Grinning Man is a deliciously dark fairytale of a show, sharing DNA with the likes of Kneehigh and The Light Princess in its theatrical playfulness and musical complexity. Tim Phillips and Marc Teitler’s score is at times extraordinary, in its range of instrumentation, in its bold emotional palette, and this reflects the epic nature of the story as the search for love, truth (and honesty – who can resist a Bananarama reference…) reaches to the highest point in the kingdom.
And though it is perhaps a tad too epic in length, it is hugely exciting and engrossing – a startling take on a chamber musical that is perfectly suited to the intimacy of this gorgeous theatre. (People will clamour for a London transfer but I can’t think of a theatre in which it would fit so well, book for Bristol now instead!) Jon Bausor’s design is beautifully done in all its imaginative simplicity, aided by the Gothic darkness of Richard Howell’s lighting design, and the puppetry from Gyre and Gimble is really very well done
Yes, that’s me praising puppetry – a rare thing indeed. But I have to say that the ‘Beauty and the Beast/Kiss of Life’ sequence in which Grinpayne and Dea, the blind girl he has been raised with, first acted out a love story with puppets and then found themselves reprising it IRL was one of the most magically, beautiful things I’ve seen and heard this year – utterly gorgeous and romantic and yet with that slight bittersweet tang of knowing how fucked up their world is. For the tangled web of the truth is a brutal one, meaning its 12+ age rating is certainly earned.
The show has been superbly cast too. Louis Maskell is exceptional as the fiendishly complex and damaged Grinpayne, unprepared for the massive changes that happen in his life, whether clinging onto the purity of Dea’s love (an achingly good Audrey Brisson) or surrendering to the seductive glamour of Gloria Onitiri’s randy Duchess Josiana. There’s great work too from Stuart Neal’s disgraced royal Lord David Dirry-Moir, Patrycja Kujawska’s imperious Queen Angelica and the marvellous Julian Bleach as the malevolent Barkilphedro, whose ambitions hide deep dark secrets.
The Grinning Man is not necessarily perfect but I loved it, I really did. Proving you can generate as much visual drama from a sheet of blue fabric as you can from the biggest revolve, proudly daring to be musically innovative at a time when so many bets are being hedged when it comes to new musicals and above all, the kind of storytelling that emotionally rings pure and true no matter how fantastical it gets. As the beautiful final sequence sets in motion and its final coup de théâtre works its magic over the auditorium, you can’t think of a much better way for Bristol Old Vic to celebrate its momentous anniversary and its invaluable contributions to the British theatre ecology.