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The Grinning Man: The new musical nurtured by a regional powerhouse

Audrey Brisson in a puppetry rehearsal for The Grinning Man. Photo: Jon Craig
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In the middle of a council estate in Vauxhall is an unloved community hall: its floor criss-crossed with faded tramlines; its basketball backboards splintered. Every window sits behind a protective wire mesh.

It’s easy to forget how much of British theatre is made in run-down rooms such as this. Downstairs, Harriet Walter and co are pulling together the last of the Donmar Warehouse’s all-female Shakespeares, while up here, with the fire escape open against the surprising September heat, more than 30 people are pulling together Bristol Old Vic’s new musical, The Grinning Man.

Louis Maskell in a puppetry rehearsal for The Grinning Man. Photo: Jon Craig
Louis Maskell in a puppetry rehearsal for The Grinning Man. Photo: Jon Craig

As the cast spins through its pre-interval medley, little groups cluster around the space. Composers Tim Phillips and Marc Teitler are whispering behind a laptop, while writer Carl Grose taps away at another. Musical director Tom Deering peers over his pianist’s shoulder. Designer Jon Bausor is checking in with his costumiers, and puppeteers Toby Olie and Finn Caldwell are carving new prototypes out of cardboard. Striding through it all, in shorts and a baggy shirt, is the Bristol Old Vic’s artistic director Tom Morris. It’s a humbling, heartening sight: this bustling, creative flurry in this old, clapped-out space.

The rehearsal room speaks volumes – about the scale of new musicals, the constraints of regional theatres and, crucially, the collaborative nature of theatremaking. Many of these artists got their starts during Morris’ time at the Battersea Arts Centre: Phillips with Filter Theatre, Grose with Kneehigh, Caldwell with Blind Summit. “A huge part of my ongoing creative community goes back to that point,” says Morris.

So, as it happens, does The Grinning Man – a musical with long roots. As far back as 2001, Phillips and Teitler started work on a musical of The Master and Margarita. The idea was to bring the audience into Bulgakov’s Moscow – “a bit of a party,” says Phillips. It scratched at BAC, then, when Morris moved to the National Theatre, went with him for workshops.

For various reasons – rights first, then rivals – it never happened. Instead, they recorded an album and kept in touch with Morris, searching for other material. Several ideas floated about, then they saw this smile…

In 1928, the German director Paul Leni shot Victor Hugo’s novel as a silent movie; a melodrama that plays like expressionist horror. The poster shows a young woman leaning in to kiss a handsome man in a mask. Beneath it, you can just about make out this gnashing snarl of a smile. “We saw this poster and loved it,” Teitler remembers. “We didn’t even know it was a book before that. We read it, and, complicated as it is, felt it was compelling enough to make a musical.”

Hugo’s 1869 novel, set in 17th-century England, concerns a man mutilated as a child and left with a rictus smile of a scar, performing in a freak show. Gwynplaine’s grin proves contagious and he’s summoned to court, kick-starting a labyrinthine plot. “It’s a love story, a quest and a Messiah narrative all living alongside each other,” says Morris. Gwynplaine is a man in search of his past, pulling a nation together as he follows his heart. “To be honest, I couldn’t have described it that clearly when we started rehearsal.”


3 other musicals made outside London in 2016

1. Flowers for Mrs Harris, Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, May

2. Fantastic Mr Fox, Nuffield Theatre, Southampton, November

3. Strictly Ballroom, West Yorkshire Playhouse, November

It has taken some paring back. Grose’s aim was to whittle it down to its narrative essentials, stripping out Hugo’s historical setting for something more abstract and darkly fantastical. He calls it “a cracked fairytale”, and the carnivalesque, organ-grinding score artfully evokes that world – and, indeed, its emotions; what it feels like to smile and smile and smile. The team rattles off a list of influences: Guillermo del Toro, Shockheaded Peter, Tim Burton, The Phantom of the Opera, Terry Gilliam. “The Grinning Man is the monster that’s not really a monster,” Teitler explains. “He reflects society back at itself.”

Told as a parable, then, that smile becomes almost prophetic. It’s an image that reflects our age, Teitler believes; all of us forcing and fixing our smiles. “For the Instagram generation, social status is measured by smiles, and staring at smiles can become contagious.” For Grose, it relates to celebrity: the image of happiness and the hollowness beneath. “That weird thing of being put on a pedestal and made into something you’re not.”

In terms of design, that’s both a gift and a challenge. Bausor’s aiming for a “really dirty, really broken-down, B-movie aesthetic” – again, centring on that smile. “It’s like a burlesque show,” he says. “A series of reveals, enticing the audience, bit by bit, removing a bra strap, as it were, before the big reveal.”

That design is so woven in that it reflects the nature of The Grinning Man’s development. “It’s actually quite close to a devising process,” says Morris. Partly, that’s the result of the material – a complex plot to be unpicked, with a range of source materials including novel, script and score. “Every time you make a shift in one, it means a shift in the other.”

Partly, though, it’s logistical. This is a big undertaking for Bristol Old Vic. “Regional theatres have very small development budgets,” Morris explains, “so you have to be inventive about how you dip your toe into things.”

The £370,000 budget is roughly equivalent to a third of the Old Vic’s annual Arts Council England grant. Under its partnership with Ambassador Theatre Group – one of several the commercial outfit has with regional theatres – the Old Vic receives £60,000 a year, initially towards new work, now specifically for new musical theatre. In the past two years, most of that has gone towards The Grinning Man. “If all goes to plan,” says Morris, “they can redeem the investment that’s gone into this.” Its future life is uncertain (as most are), but a number of theatres – subsidised and commercial – have expressed interest.

Director, Tom Morris. Photo: Geraint Lewis
Director, Tom Morris. Photo: Geraint Lewis

It’s still a risky prospect. “Yes, it’s a Victor Hugo novel, but it’s not Les Mis. It’s far more counter-intuitive than conventional.” Pitching it commercially would have proved problematic. As Morris says, “It’s not exactly a ‘musical’ musical.”

That’s meant a pared-back process, one that’s taken its time – almost five years, 10 drafts and about 50 songs in total. After an initial storytelling workshop, the writing team has worked in stops and starts, coming together in short bursts. They brought in actors to test things out, but, to save time and money, Phillips would sing the score himself.

“The challenge with musical theatre is that it’s very expensive, because so many people need to be there,” Morris explains. “You need to try to do as much development before the production process, but the difficulty is that, in order to do the development process well, you need all those people present.”

Back in the hall, here they all are – still chipping away, still chopping and changing. Morris mentions that, the day before, after a creative team meeting, the two composers knocked out a whole 20 minutes of material to crack the show’s ending. That’s part and parcel of a project such as this, says Phillips: ambitious, uncertain and out of the ordinary. “It’s Tom’s way, isn’t it? He’s the Willy Wonka of theatre.”

The Grinning Man production information

Venue: Bristol Old Vic
Dates: October 13-November 13
Press night: October 20
Tickets: £9.50-32
Signed performance: October 29, 2.30pm
Audio-described performance: November 5, 2.30pm (touch tour from 12.30pm)
Captioned performance: November 12, 2.30pm
Rehearsal period: Six weeks
Production budget: £370,000
Director: Tom Morris
Composers: Tim Phillips, Marc Teitler
Author: Carl Grose
Design: Jon Bausor (set), Jean Chan (costume), Richard Howell (lighting), Simon Baker (sound)
Movement director: Jane Gibson
Puppetry design/direction: Toby Olie, Finn Caldwell
Music supervisor: Tom Deering
Casting: Will Burton
Cast: Stuart Angell, Alice Barclay, Stu Barker, Ewan Black, Julian Bleach, Audrey Brisson, Pete Flood, David Guy, Ross Hughes, Sean Kingsley, Patrycja Kujawska, Louis Maskell, Tarek Merchant, Stuart Neal, Gloria Obianyo, Gloria Oniti

The Grinning Man runs at Bristol Old Vic until November 13

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