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The Grinning Man review at Bristol Old Vic – ‘ambitious and macabre new musical’

Louis Maskell in The Grinning Man. Photo: Simon Annand

Tom Morris’ musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel The Man Who Laughs is not a Les Mis re-tread. It’s a macabre fable about a young man called Gwynplaine whose face has been mutilated in childhood leaving him with an eternal grin.

A kindly old man takes him in, along with Dea, a blind infant girl he finds in the snow. As Gwynplaine grows up he becomes a carnival attraction – when people look upon his broken face they feel emotions they have not felt before. Gwynplaine, meanwhile, is driven by the need to revenge himself on the man who damaged him, but his mind is fogged by pain and he takes opiates to obliterate it – along with his memories.

Morris’ production is very visually striking. Writer Carl Grose, a man with a knack for the macabre, has condensed (to an extent) the knotty 19th century plot, while composers Tim Phillips and Marc Teitler have supplied the songs. There’s a definite Kneehigh flavour to some of the scenes (Grose, along with musician Stu Barker, are regular Kneehigh collaborators).

While there are some engaging and intricate melodies, it’s the design that really impresses. Jon Bausor has turned the Bristol Old Vic stage into a vast bloody maw. The first half of the story is told via puppetry and Gyre and Gimble have created some unsettling puppets of Gwynplaine and Dea along with a wolf-puppet that looks like an escapee from The Dark Crystal. There’s even a lovely sequence where the puppet children play with little puppets of their own.

Gwynplaine becomes a kind of holy figure – a celebrity. The sight of his face causes rapture and release in those who look upon him. The story contains echoes of Phantom of the Opera, Pinocchio and The Elephant Man, while the design, at times, brings to mind the work of everyone from Lotte Reiniger, the German pioneer of silhouette animation, to comic book writer Alan Moore. Terry Gilliam has also been cited as in influence and there’s a Monty Python quality to some of the scenes.

The Grinning Man features some fine vocal performances, particularly from Louis Maskell in the lead role. He draws out the complexities of the character, while Audrey Brisson, as the tender-hearted Dea, and Gloria Onitiri as the Duchess Josiana also impress. Shockheaded Peter co-creator Julian Bleach is deliciously wicked as Barkiphedro the bad clown, injecting a welcome and necessary note of humour into the production; Stuart Neal’s disgraced Lord David is also highly entertaining.

This is an undoubtedly ambitious and visually rich production, but its mixture of tones can feel erratic. At a sprawling three hours in length, it’s not always the tidiest or tightest of productions either. It contains moments of emotional serration, but it’s also often frustrating and cumbersome.

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Ambitious and strikingly designed musical retelling of Victor Hugo’s macabre fable