Tag Archives: Finn Caldwell

The Grinning Man – Trafalgar Studios

The Grinning Man, Bristol Old Vic

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.

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Angels in America: Perestroika – National Theatre

So, at the end of Part One we left the characters of Angels in America on the cusp of new opportunities and in Perestroika playwright Tony Kushner explores the consequences of their choices in what becomes a sprawling journey through the identity politics of 80s America. First performed a year after Millennium Approaches, Perestroika is both more elaborate and in some ways a more substantial theatrical experience than its predecessor which is increasingly apparent in the National Theatre’s new production.

Running at well over 4 hours in previews with both parts combined being a near 8-hour commitment, this is a significant ask for an audience. Yet, intimidating as that may be, fluid direction means that scenes flow smoothly into one another and even with the first two acts being a substantial 90 minutes each Perestroika flies by, almost more easily than part one. A long show is always a risk, with the fear that actorly indulgence takes precedence over audience comfort, but for once with Angels in America it is a risk that pays off handsomely giving the viewer the chance to see something with an epic sweep that takes in issues of national and personal identity, religion and politics, while examining a set of distinct characters in satisfying detail.

If you haven’t seen part one then there will be some minor spoilers ahead but Perestroika begins exactly where Millennium Approaches left off, as an Angel crashes through the ceiling of Prior Walter’s bedroom and warns him that God has abandoned heaven, and much of what follows for Prior is a mixture of hallucinations and intrusions into real life as he copes with the fallout from his AIDs diagnosis and the end of his relationship with Louis. But things get more complicated when The Angel makes him a reluctant prophet who must stop mankind from moving, the only thing that can save heaven.

Meanwhile Louis is now in a relationship with Joe but struggles to overcome the guilt he feels for abandoning Prior and seeks an opportunity to meet face to face. Now in his first homosexual relationship, Joe becomes quickly and deeply attached to Louis but as faith and work come between them, Joe begins to crave the simplicity and stability he had with wife Harper who finds herself stuck working with her mother-in-law in a Mormon Visitors’ centre. And over in the hospital, vicious lawyer Roy uses his influence to secure a wonder-drug but he declines rapidly, and as his health fails he’s given a chance to see life and death as it really is.

Focusing heavily on Prior, Part Two is about restitution and the acceptance of self which allows each of the characters to find some kind of peace with themselves. Although not without incident and a complex journey for all, it feels more intimate than Part One and asks more direct questions about the quality of the life each person wants to live, while still touching on those big picture concepts of nationhood and faith. This strikes more of a chord partly because the audience already knows the characters quite well and becomes more invested in their trajectory, but also there is a sense of joy which runs through this second production that make Kushner’s message both engaging and genuinely life affirming.

One of the main reasons for that is because the plot of Perestroika also contains more large-scale hallucinatory episodes which give the National a chance to display its showmanship as bizarre flights of fancy create an engaging spectacle for the audience. Director Marianne Elliott’s War Horse experience brings a skilled integration of puppetry into representing Prior’s Angel, as the huge tatty wings are operated independently by a small team, while the Angel herself, played by Amanda Lawrence, is depicted as a shabby and possibly dangerous presence. The combined design of Finn Caldwell’s puppets and Nicky Gillibrand’s costume reinforce the idea of heaven gone to ruin in the absence of God, while there is something of the harpy about The Angel which make sense of Prior’s concerns.

This idea of magical realism is given a grubby façade, so later when Prior is given a choice between the fate of the Angels and that of man, it happens in a bleak sci-fi heaven rather than the fluffy white clouds we’re used to, while a spectacular diorama about a Mormon journey at the Visitors’ Centre inserts Joe into another of Prior and Harper’s joint hallucinations. It’s a brilliant creation, perfectly capturing dummies in a scene so familiar to old-fashioned museums, and were just a bit staid, while reiterating ideas about the different faces people wear in public and the excising of ordinary women from religious history. The scale and imagination displayed, and the way puppetry has been seamlessly woven into the production are a real high point of Perestroika and as scenes become increasingly crazy, there’s real fun to be had in just watching the show take shape in unexpected ways.

While Ian McNeil’s set felt too pedestrian in Millennium Approaches, the removal of the three revolves in Perestroika means the action flows much more smoothly and helps its long run time pass quickly. Scenes merge effortlessly, as hospitals, houses, parks and other realms easily give way to one another, allowing the audience to be swept between opposite places without confusion. McNeil outlines some scenes in bright boxes of neon light which create some memorable stage pictures, while a series of stage hands move sets into position dressed as dark crawling creatures adding to the idea that not only is disease raging unseen through the community but that lives are being controlled by bigger, possibly more nefarious, forces.

Like Part One, the characterisation is distinct and brought vividly to life by a talented cast. Again, Andrew Garfield is exemplary as Prior in what is certainly one of his best performances and probably one to watch for next year’s award ceremonies. In this production, Prior moves on from his initial anguish to discover greater inner reserves, coping independently with his condition while Garfield gives him an unexpected strength when he finally comes face-to-face with Louis again. In a wide-ranging performance, Garfield is hilarious as Prior faces the absurdity of The Angel and plays the prophet as a Norma Desmond-like-figure, but still he finds great sensitivity in a burgeoning relationship with Joe’s mother Hannah (Susan Brown) and in the hope that grows out of his sufferings.

Nathan Lane’s Roy is the big surprise in Perestroika drawing the audience into his performance and eliciting considerable sympathy for his destruction. Confined mostly to a hospital bed throughout, his fear and loneliness are palpable, and while he was a terrible person the reduction of all that scheming, manoeuvring and grasping for power to nothing is something Lane makes genuinely pitiable. Particularly enjoyable in this production is Roy’s belligerent relationship with his nurse Belize who being both black and openly gay are a challenge to Roy’s views. Yet Nathan Stewart-Jarrett weaves carefully between Belize’s duty of care as a nurse, wanting to help his patient, and sardonic attacks on Roy’s nonsense beliefs. With perfect comic timing, these scenes are among the best and most hilarious in this show.

Similarly, excellent is Susan Brown whose small role as Joe’s mother becomes much more fundamental here as she crosses paths with Prior and, having rejected her own son’s sexuality, is drawn into the life of the young man she takes to the hospital, developing a tender affection for him that demonstrates her re-education in the big city. Denise Gough’s Harper has less stage time in Part Two but, like Prior, she develops a an inner steel and independence that makes her ultimate quest for freedom from her unsuccessful marriage and from her fantasy world convincing, with the audience willing her to find a happier life.

With Perestroika performed a little less often than Millennium Approaches in the run-up to press night, it’s not quite as polished as it will be. With that in mind, Russell Tovey and James McArdle as Joe and Louis will find greater depth in their characters which should come as the run progresses and as they perform the full show a few more times. Tovey is extremely good in the early sections as Joe becomes clingy and certain he’s in love after only 3 weeks, but has more to give as the relationship sours and he is left alone, while McArdle captures the speed of Louis’s wordy delivery, his barrier against the world, but, as with Part One, has to connect more with the way in which his guilt and grief lead him to a greater understanding of himself.

Taken together, this two-part production of Angels in America is a considerable triumph for the National Theatre in what is a memorable production. It successfully combines a huge scope that confronts big philosophical concepts with the small-scale story of a group of inter-connected New Yorkers dealing with a major health crisis in uncertain times. It will mature as the run continues allowing the performances to grow and expand, and whether you connect more to the political angst of Millennium Approaches, or, like me, the bonkers fantasy of Perestroika, this is 7.5 hours of epic theatre that will leave a lasting impression. And even 25 years on its message is one we still need to hear, tolerance, openness and understanding are the most important thing society can offer, whoever you are and wherever you come from. As Prior discovers, ultimately life is all we have and we must cling to it.

Angels in America is at The National Theatre until 19th August with both parts running in repertory with some two-play days. Tickets are mostly sold out but returns frequently appear on the National website, but tickets are also available via Friday Rush and a weekly ballot for £20 run by Delta. NT Live screenings will also take place from 20 July


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