REVIEW: The Grinning Man, Bristol Old Vic (Online)

This gothic fairytale may have plenty of darkness about it but has also a thread of compassion and love that runs through it beautifully.

Based on Victor Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs, this British musical first premiered at the Bristol Old Vic as part of its 250th anniversary season – before heading to London’s Trafalgar Studios. Filled with so many imaginative visual techniques, this is a musical that is filled with compassion even with its gothic fairytale style.

The story follows Grinpayne on his quest to find out who he really is and how he came to be disfigured in such a way that has left him with a permanent smile on his face. In order to do so, he has to rely on the help of a blind girl Dea, an old man called Ursus who took him in as a child and a wolf. But there are secrets just waiting to be discovered in this mysterious story.

Directed with great feeling and intrigue by Tom Morris, The Grinning Man immediately pulls the audience in with its quirky style, enhanced beautifully by Richard Howell’s lighting design that creates a suitably gothic atmosphere. In particular during moments where characters are reflecting or when Grinpayne’s story is revealed, it is truly haunting – heightening the emotion.

But there are also so many other elements that help the story unfold in an unconventional way. This includes the use of wonderful shadow puppetry helps to capture the big parts of the story, while the larger puppets are effectively incorporated to ensure that the central characters are given a strong focus.

Everything is so vivid and even watching it on a screen, you can really feel the heart and soul of the characters shining through – in particular the way in which Grinpayne and Dea’s relationship is highlighted, offers some lovely tender moments.

Musically, it incorporates a range of styles that offers great diversity in tone, while ensuring that the story is never lost. Particular highlights include the playful ‘Laughter is the Best Medicine’, ‘Born Broken’ and the dramatically staged ‘Show Us Your Face’. Each song has plenty to offer and is consistently intriguing to listen to.

While there is a sense of melodrama that runs throughout, the performances are always very controlled. In particular, Julian Bleach as Barkilphedro is delightfully sharp and conniving in his attempts to become a lord while trying to ensure his long kept secret remains that way. Audrey Brisson is utterly charming and sincere as Dea, you really feel her pain when Grinpayne disappears and has a lovely chemistry with Louis Maskell as Grinpayne that makes their romance sincere. Meanwhile, Maskell is able to convey Grinpayne’s pain and frustration at not knowing about his past in a suitably sympathetic way.

Overall, this is a gorgeous fairytale of a musical that may come across as bleak, yet it is wonderfully compassionate and loving from start to finish. I regret even more now that I didn’t see this live.

By Emma Clarendon

The Grinning Man is available to watch until Friday 3rd July.

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

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