However much theatre you see, it is rare to find something that is truly magical, and in the week before Christmas few things will gladdened the heart as completely as Bristol Old Vic’s production of The Grinning Man now showing at the Trafalgar Studios. If you’re not a panto person, can’t face another version of A Christmas Carol and are by now shouting “humbug” at a festive period that started in earnest in October, then this glorious adaptation of Victor Hugo’s dark tale hits all the right notes to tally with your mood, melting your icy exterior with its focus on pain, rejection and injustice.
There is something very distinctive about a Victor Hugo story and even when translated for the stage, the essential characteristics are the same. Whether you’ve read all 1000+ pages of Les Misérables (and you should it’s stunning), or seen the musical, or even watched versions of Verdi’s opera Rigoletto, Hugo’s writing manages to be simultaneously epic and intimate, covering grand sweeps of history and decades in a character’s life, giving anatomies of entire cities, while focusing on the slog of every day living, the physical and emotional fragility of individual characters, rich or poor united by a common humanity.
The Grinning Man does exactly that, weaving together high and low in a complex story of brutalisation and loss of innocence. As a child Grinpayne is savagely mutilated with his face sliced from ear to ear in a permanent grin. Hidden beneath bandages and orphaned, the boy finds a baby crying in the snow where the two are taken in by a local man who raises them as his own. Years later, at the palace, the three bored children of the King find themselves captivated by the ugly-beautiful face they see at the local fair and set out to know him better. But the man’s history starts to emerge, and very soon the Grinning Man will find out who he really is.
The success of this production lies in the sincerity of Carl Grose’s text, supported by an emotive score by Tim Phillips and Marc Teitler, and an absorbing vision from director Tom Morris that marries a shabby travelling circus aesthetic with warped fairy tale quality. Working with Jon Bausor’s design, and while seemingly set in the eighteenth-century, this is a far cry from the cliched vision of downtrodden urchins in designer dirt. Instead we’re offered a semi-fantastical world driven by the characters rather than the period setting, in which the macabre moments are perfectly balanced with humour and romance. It’s never allowed to be either too maudlin or too light, but is constantly full of complexity as characters, divested of their innocence, aspire to be more than they are.
The notion of dreams runs through the show, uniting the key players in their desire to be someone different, a desire that is shared equally among rich and poor, whether it’s the wealthy royal children craving real emotion and escape from the imprisonment of their privilege, or Grinpayne’s adoptive father Ursus (Sean Kingsley) exploiting his son to take them all to a better life in the new world.
Morris’s production implies a permanent night in which characters and sets appear abruptly from the surrounding darkness. It has benefited from some revision and a slightly shorter run time since its first outing in Bristol, but still focuses on all the classic Hugo themes – a sense of personal injustice, a lifelong quest for truth, father-daughter relationships, the transition between the generations and spiritual uplift in moments of political upheaval – and shrouds them in a carefully conceived gothic wrapping that draws together a variety of innovative techniques to keep the audience enraptured.
Initially, the story of the Grinning Man is told to bored Prince Dirry-Moir who escapes to see the fair, but he soon becomes involved in Grinpayne’s life along with his lustful sister Josiana. Using Finn Caldwell and Toby Olie’s child-sized puppets, primarily in the first half, the history of Grinpayne’s tragic childhood is brought engagingly to life, partially operated by his grown-up self, played by Louis Maskell. The addition of a giant wolf that the Ursus family keep as a pet, superbly rendered by combining a mask head and front paws with performer Loren O’Dair as the hind-legs, will impress fans of the War Horse puppeteers. This is highly sophisticated work that seamlessly blends marionettes with the real actors to keep the show on the border of unreality, underscoring Morris’s heightened vision.
The audience is told repeatedly that all who look on the Grinning Man are entirely compelled by him, and Louis Maskell’s performance as Grinpayne is the heart of the show. His lower face is covered by a prosthetic sling and, for the most part, a bandage, so Maskell is only able to use his eyes and voice to deliver all the complexity and suffering of a social outcast, pushed beyond the bounds of normalcy by his disfigurement. It is also an intensely physical performance, and Maskell uses his full body to convey the deep-rooted anguish that has shaped Grinpayne’s character, and you frequently see the strain ripple through his neck and upper body, as he conveys an endless contortion of soul.
Yet, he retains an essential innocence, a purity that raises him above the other characters despite his physical shape, reinforcing Hugo’s notion that external appearance and goodness are not always aligned. Maskell’s voice is extraordinary, with a range and depth that display the complexity of his experience, and in a powerful performance he manifests the combination of loss, fear, determination, love and self-discovery that mark his development as the plot unfolds, demonstrating Grinpayne’s charisma and appeal to the audience. It is extremely skilled work to convey all of this with only half a face.
Of the surrounding cast, there are notable performances from Amanda Wilkin as the sex-crazed Duchess Josiana and Mark Anderson as comically arrogant Prince Dirry-Moir, both living a lifestyle of high hedonism but unable to feel real emotion. And while there is plenty of saucy humour in the female role which Wilkin elicits, she avoids making Josiana entirely cartoonish and instead hints at a woman equally pained by her circumstances, as both she and her brother seek a kind of liberation from their encounter with Grinpayne.
Sean Turner’s Ursus must navigate an equally interesting path through the show, taking him from the lonely and noble widower who houses two abandoned children, raising them as his own, to a man who exploits his mutilated son to win the chance for them all to escape abroad. Turner unfolds the intricacy of Hugo’s character, a man shaped by the circumstances of his life, making bad decisions, often for good reasons, with a similar need to find redemption and atonement.
Hugo’s writing rarely has outright villains, and one of the things he shows so well is how characters are driven by different beliefs and purposes that cause them to clash. Grose stays faithful to this idea with Barkilphedro, the sullied clown and servant to the Royal Family, who in Julian Bleach’s performance is a sinister and resentful figure whose unrewarded loyalty drives the machinations of the plot. By contrast, Hugo includes a highly angelic, if deeply insipid, young love interest – think Cosette in Les Misérables – and here Sanne den Besten assumes that role as Dea, the blind child Grinpayne rescues from the snow, who grows up with him and becomes his intended. den Besten sings beautifully in what is a bland role and the relationship between Dea and Grinpayne is the only duff note in the show. For the more cynical it may be too much to believe that a virtual brother and sister with so unevenly weighted characters are a perfect pairing.
The Grinning Man may not a be suitable for children (it has an age limit of 12 years), and it’s certainly not a Christmas show in any way, but within the grotesque world that Grose, Morris, Teitler and Phillips create there is a rare and genuine theatre magic. Amidst the endlessly enforced Christmas spirit, it is in this half-way world between fantasy and reality that something entirely unexpected happens, a genuine festive warmth emerges from this tale of broken humanity, sending even the most hardened audience members home with thoughts of goodwill to all men. So, kudos to the Bristol Old Vic, the creators and cast of The Grinning Man, you have achieved what no one else ever has, you have broken London and made it a better place… well, at least until the New Year. Happy Christmas!
The Grinning Man is at Trafalgar Studios until 14 April with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturcalcap1.