BWW Review: THE GRINNING MAN, Trafalgar Studios
A musical adaptation of a typically slabbish Victor Hugo novel? Well, it's a formula that's worked before...
The Grinning Man follows the fortunes of Grinpayne, slashed across the face as a boy, the orphaned son of a rebel, the delight of the cruel carnival gawkers of Lonn'donn Town. He pursues revenge on his unknown assailant, conducts a strangely passion-free courtship of Dea, the girl he rescued when she was but a baby, and is loved by the nymphomaniac princess Josiana.
Meanwhile, clown courtier with secrets, Barkilphedro, burns with ambitious jealousy and banished libertine, Prince Dirry-Moir, seeks favour with his sister, the mad Queen Angelica.
Got all that?
Carl Grose's book does a decent enough job of focussing the source material's sprawl into a plot that makes sense (though only just at times) and mercifully comes in at under three hours - though the second act would benefit from judicious cutting.
In that task, Grose is assisted by an all encompassing sordid, squalid set by Jon Bausor, whose influence is felt en route to one's seat, never mind inside the house itself. All that's missing is the reek of the rookeries and a carny barker or two outside in Whitehall.
Lending further verisimilitude to this Pullmanesque parallel world (Trafalgar Fair, a royal palace in Catford) are the stars of the show - the wonderful puppets that are anything but wooden in their portrayals of the boy Grinpayne and his faithful wolfhound Mojo - brilliant work from Finn Caldwell and Toby Olie.
A strong score also advances the plot with wit and, if not quite showstopping tunes, certainly pleasing melodies, sung well by an excellent cast. Julian Bleach delivers a fine opening number, "Laughter is the best medicine" introducing us to the schadenfreude that suffuses his world with a touch of Cabaret's Emcee and rather more than a touch of Rocky Horror's Riff-Raff - he's a gorgeously grotesque Fool for his Learish King Clarence. There's top drawer singing too from Louis Maskell as reluctant hero, Grinpayne and nowhere near enough from the fantastic Amanda Wilkin as the sybaritic Josiana.
So much to admire, but all the good work is let down by director Tom Morris's tin ear for tone. Perhaps intimidated by the shadow cast by Les Miserables (and you can throw in Sweeney Todd too), the story's pathos is continually undermined by panto, the show lurching from tearjerking tragedy to broad, slightly desperate, all too knowing humour like a tube train with a faulty door.
Julian Bleach invests Barkilphedro with plenty of charisma, but when he breaks the fourth wall to become our confidante, he's still a child-torturing villain, and assumes that role again, seconds later - the laughs coming uneasily at best.
Julie Atherton does what she can with Queen Angelica, but being required to ham it up continually as a pantomime-ish Cruella De Vil proves wearing for us and probably for her too.
And what to make of Mark Anderson's Dirry-Moir - full of Buttons-like enthusiasm, a lustful man-child - but hardly endearing, the empathy evaporating barely before it's established. It would be a tough ask for an audience to get through two and a half hours without any comic relief, but it needs to grow out of the characters' attitudes and feelings and not be bulldozed into the tale, spinning us 180 degrees with wearying repetition.
Go for the puppets, the singing and the beautiful sets and costumes, but check your comedy and tragedy masks in at the cloakroom because they spend the evening arguing so loudly that they undermine the whole shebang.
Photo Helen Maybanks