A musical based on a Victor Hugo novel? IT’LL NEVER WORKetc.
The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare The Freak: It also makes heavy use of puppetry to tell the musical story of a freak show, and a star attraction equal parts repellent and attractive. It’s also another French story, although instead of elaborating on historical fact this comes from a late Victor Hugo fantasy, here relocated to an alternate Lon Don; its palace might be in Catford, but the theatre’s real-life location a few blocks from Downing Street is frequently evoked in relation to the royal family motto of “to him that hath, much more shall be given; to him that hath little, it shall be taken away.”
In the other direction is Trafalgar Fair, where Grinpayne (Louis Maskell) is a star attraction. When he was a child someone slashed the corners of his mouth into a permanent bloody smile; he has no memory of the event but swore to find whoever did it and take revenge.
After his mother died, Grinpayne and another orphan, the blind Dea (Sanne den Besten) were rescued by Ursus (Sean Kingsley) who now tours them to freak shows hoping to raise enough money to escape the country and the tyrannical regime. But when the king suddenly dies, Grinpayne finds the new royal family taking an interest in him as the dim-witted Prince David Dirry-Moir (Mark Anderson) becomes fixated on the show, and introduces his sister, Duchess Josiana (Amanda Wilkin) to it as well. Whenever he removes the bandages covering his scarred mouth, Grinpayne elicits surprising responses – instead of horror there’s an extreme empathy with a touch of attraction to it, and the nymphomaniac Josiana is uncontrollably attracted to the scarred man.
There’s a Russian doll quality to The Grinning Man, which is narrated by Julian Bleach as sinister jester Barkilphedro, but within that story we have Ursus’ narration of how he discovered Grinpayne and Dea. This structure is mirrored by Jon Bausor’s design, which decorates the Trafalgar Studios’ front-of-house and main auditorium in faded fairground posters before presenting a gaping bloody mouth as the stage, and within that the cart that serves as Ursus’ freak show stage (and, when it revolves, Josiana’s bed.)
Hugo’s story is ultimately a dark fairytale about the triumph of compassion and empathy, but the sense of dark comedy that revels in its grotesqueness keeps it far from being cheesy. It’s a tone introduced right from the start by Bleach’s oleaginous, social-climbing fool and maintained by a cast pitching everything just the right side of arch; they include Julie Atherton as the childlike new Queen, who makes a bizarre first appearance, kissing the pig’s trotter her late father choked on. Maskell and den Basten have to provide some heart into all of this and manage to – particular kudos has to go to the former, who has to sing through a prosthetic, with a bandage over that most of the time as well.
Thanks to Morris having co-directed War Horse the puppets by Finn Caldwell and Toby Olié have received a lot of attention but they don’t dominate the show; they’re mostly used for the flashbacks although the wolf Mojo (James Alexander-Taylor and Loren O’Dair) slinking around the stage adds atmosphere to a show that already has plenty of it. This is also true of the songs, which are more about setting the scene than providing something to tap your feet to. The Grinning Man provides a few hours of fantasy that revels in the dark side, every so often breaking out a moment of wicked humour that had me grinning as well.
The Grinning Man by Carl Grose, Tom Morris, Tim Phillips and Marc Teitler, based on L'Homme Qui Rit by Victor Hugo, is booking until the 14th of April at Trafalgar Studio 1.
Running time: 2 hours 35 minutes including interval.
Photo credit: Helen Maybanks.