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 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, the blind infant girl he finds in the snow. As Gwynplaine grows up he becomes a carnival attraction – when people look upon his broken and bloodied face they feel things they have not felt before. He, 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.

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

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 distinctly unsettling child puppets along with a wolf-puppet that looks like something out of The Dark Crystal. There’s even a lovely sequence where the puppets play with puppets of their own.

The production contains echoes of Phantom of the Opera, Pinocchio and The Elephant Man, while the design, at times, brings to mind the work of Lotte Reiniger and Alan Moore. Terry Gilliam has been cited as in influence and there’s a Monty Python quality to some scenes.

There are some fine vocal performances, particularly Louis Maskell in the lead role, who draws out the complexities of the character, Audrey Brisson, as the tender-hearted Dea, and Gloria Onitiri as the Duchess Josiana, a woman of sizeable appetites who is also saddled with the show’s least flattering costumes – at one point she seems to be sporting a ferret on her head. Shockheaded Peter co-creator Julian Bleach is deliciously wicked as Barkiphedro the bad clown, injecting a necessary note of humour into the production; Stuart Neal’s disgraced Lord David is also highly entertaining.

Gwynplaine becomes a kind of holy figure – a celebrity of sorts. His pain causes rapture and release in others. As his fame spreads, splashes of neon invade the murky, crimson-flecked set and the populace take to sporting neon smiley faces on their clothes. There’s a political edge to things too, or at least an attempt at one – and it’s such a horribly potent image, that of the permanent smile. There’s a reason why the Joker is DC’s most memorable villain (the film of The Man Who Laughs was the inspiration for the character).

But for all that’s striking and exciting about this ambitious production, its mixture of tones can feel erratic, blunt at times and delicate at others. At a sprawling three hours in length, it’s not always the tidiest or tightest of productions either, and while this creates moments of emotional serration, there are also moments when it feels cumbersome and frustratingly scattered.

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