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Mark Shenton: Is The Grinning Man part of a new golden age for West End musicals?

Louis Maskell in The Grinning Man. Photo: Simon Annand Louis Maskell in The Grinning Man. Photo: Simon Annand
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Last year saw the premiere of Everybody’s Talking About Jamie at Sheffield’s Crucible (now moved to the Apollo), the Old Vic gave us Girl from the North Country (now at the Noel Coward), and Bristol Old Vic’s The Grinning Man transferred to the Trafalgar Studios.

Not since the 1980s heyday of the British musical – when shows like Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats, Starlight Express and The Phantom of the Opera, and the Cameron Mackintosh-produced Les Miserables and Miss Saigon premiered before going onto global success – has the West End suddenly, in quick succession, produced such a raft of new and totally compelling musicals.

And then there’s Hamilton, of course, which arrived from Broadway; and may indeed be exactly the reason for producers renewed confidence in the form. None of these shows are exactly obvious: a show about a teenager who dreams of going to his high school prom in a dress; a Depression-era play accompanied by a Bob Dylan soundtrack; and an unusual Gothic romance featuring puppetry and disability.

As David Adkin, one of the co-producers of The Grinning Man, says: “It’s probably the riskiest thing in the West End – but sometimes you have to take a risk, otherwise the dynamic of the West End becomes quite dull. We haven’t got any celebrities and we haven’t got a known title. There was a film in 1928, but it’s not one many people are aware of. We think the music is beautiful and we hope that when people come and see it they’ll go nuts. We want the show to do the talking – that’s key on something like this.”

It was seeing a poster for that silent film that started co-composers Tim Phillips (a Canadian who lives in London, who is co-artistic director of Filter Theatre) and Marc Teitler (who has written for London’s Royal Opera House and TV series Game of Thrones) on their journey to turn Victor Hugo’s novel into a musical.

“We saw a poster for it at a friend’s house, and we’d been looking for a project to do with [director] Tom Morris for a long time,” says Phillips. “We read the novel and it had this great love story in it, which was important for us in any show we were going to write.”

‘It’s a classic love story that involves someone who is ostracised for how he looks. But we have someone at the helm of the US who during his campaign constantly took the mickey out of people like that’

The show is made with palpable love – and a sense of invention, too. Designer Jon Bausor calls it a “Gothic horror show”, and points out: “It needed a new idea behind it, so we’ve created an immersive experience where the audience comes in and are a part of this from the outset. They are pulled into it – we’ve made it like an installation that’s quite site-specific. We’ve mucked around with the architecture of the theatre, brought the proscenium downstage, and raised the stage so it throws itself into the rake. We’ve joined it up so there’s no separation between the stage and the audience.”

Bausor also designed one of last year’s largest musicals, Bat out of Hell (itself transferring soon to the Dominion), and he says: “They couldn’t be more different, but they both appeal to a slightly fantastical, dystopian exaggerated expressionism. Bat out of Hell is more futuristic B movies, whereas The Grinning Man is a bit Comic-Con. The Grinning Man [character] was an inspiration for the Joker in Batman.”

Louis Maskell, the 28-year-old actor who is playing the title role in the musical, feels it is the perfect time for the show. “It’s resonant not only for now but for any time. It’s a classic love story that involves someone who is ostracised for how he looks. But we have someone at the helm of the US who during his campaign constantly took the mickey out of people like that. Grinpayne is a character a lot of people can relate to.”

No wonder it is one of the most unusual yet enticing musicals in town.

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