Review: The Grinning Man

Louis Maskell as Grinpayne
RATING: ★★★★★

The Grinning Man is unlike anything else I've seen in London. It's a spectacle of semi-immersive theatre, a perfect balance of tragedy and comedy, and one of the most innovative shows I've ever witnessed. A beautiful dark story is combined with the a breathtaking set design, delightful humour, beautiful but quirky music, and a wonderful cast under the direction of Tom Morris.

The show is based on a novel by Victor Hugo called The Man Who Laughs. It's a story of a man named Grinpayne whose face was disfigured at a young age, though he can't remember who did it. He lives in London in a time "that never was" (but feels fairly contemporary with Hugo's other works) with his adoptive father Ursus and the girl he saved from the snow when she was only a baby, Dea.

Added in are some hilarious royals, including the ultimate fangirl Lord David Dirry-Moir. (Yes, he's highly relatable.) The story is told by the hilariously cynical court jester Barkilphedro.

To me, The Grinning Man feels like a combination of The Phantom of the Opera, War Horse, and Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 - three of my favorite shows. The atmosphere is brilliantly evoked; it feels a bit like a fair from the nineteenth century in which you believe that anything could happen.

The set itself (designed by Jon Bausor) is wonderful, but the coolest part is how they decorated the entire theatre to make you feel like you're a part of the show. There are fair lights (that's the best way I know how to describe them) hung out across the audience and the entire place has an almost steampunk feel to it. It's clear from the moment you arrive that you're going to be close to the story.

Sean Kingsley as Ursus
The show also includes puppetry done by the same people who did the horses for War Horse. While the puppets of the children are fantastic, it's Mojo the wolf that draws gasps from the audience. Is it strange to admit that at times I forgot it was a puppet?

The show has a lovely eclectic score that blends traditional musical theatre and more pop/rock musical theatre very well. With music written by Tim Phillips and Marc Teitler and lyrics by Carl Grose, Tom Morris, Tim Phillips, and Marc Teitler, it blends into the dialogue quite well. My personal favorite songs from the show are "Beauty and the Beast", "Freak Show", "Brand New World of Feeling", and the show-stopping "Labyrinth". Can we please get a cast album soon?

I'm particularly impressed by the show's book, done by Carl Grose. I'm not typically keen on musicals that aren't sung-through, but the dialogue in The Grinning Man is very well done.

Sanne den Besten and Louis Maskell as Dea and Grinpayne
The show is what I would describe as semi-immersive. People who've read my blog for a while might remember how much I adored Great Comet and I recently saw the immersive Julius Caesar at the Bridge Theatre. I think that involving the audience in the story and breaking the fourth wall is such a fun thing to do to test the boundaries of theatre.

The Grinning Man heavily uses the aisles and also has a platform built in the middle of the front stalls where some of the action takes place. I recommend booking in for the first few rows of the stalls if you can when you go, somewhere in between rows B and H for the most immersive experience. There's nothing like feeling like you're actually part of the action.

The cast of this show really are stunning. The three royal children are absolutely hilarious. Amanda Wilkin brings a soulful jazzy sound to songs like "Brand New World of Feeling" but also brings an earnestness to even the most outlandish of her lines that make them all the more funny. Mark Anderson is one of the highlights of the show, in my opinion, as he makes Dirry-Moir somehow incredibly relatable despite being ridiculously foppish.

Julian Bleach is appropriately creepy as the jester Barkilphedro and delivers one of the best comedic performances I've ever seen. The ensemble are all stunning, but I was particularly impressed by Ewan Black's vocals as Trelaw/Osric. He manages to make the rather minor character of Trelaw seem very defined and gave a dignity to the revolutionary that I appreciated. (I know, I know, of course someone with a blog called 'Flower Crowns and Revolutionaries' would give a shoutout to the revolutionary character.)

The ensemble of The Grinning Man
Sanne de Besten lends a whimsical quality to Dea without losing the gravity and tragedy of the role. She reminds me a bit of Luna Lovegood, in fact. I thought that her portrayal of Dea's blindness was rather good and her vocals are absolutely wonderful. (I'm so glad I got to see her in this as I always wanted to see her when she was the cover Fantine in Les Mis.)

What can you even say about a performance like Louis Maskell's as Grinpayne? He delivers some of the best vocals currently on the West End, despite wearing a prosthetic over the lower half of his face during the show. His voice is very strong, with a unique sound to it that's well suited to the role. His acting is equally as wonderful and he portrays the tragic character of Grinpayne with such heart that it's impossible not to feel for him.

The first time I went, I got to see three understudies who were all fabulous in their roles. Jonathan Cobb was on for Mojo and it astounds me that anyone who doesn't do that kind of puppetry every day could be so good at it. Leo Elso was playing King Clarence and his performance somewhat reminded me of the character of King George in Hamilton - utterly ridiculous and hilariously condescending.

David Bardsley as Ursus blew me away; he was so fatherly and warm that I completely wasn't ready for what occurred in Act II. His voice is also very good which made "Stars in the Sky" one of the best parts of the show. No disrespect meant to the principle, but I hope that I get to see Bardsley's Ursus again before the show closes.

I've seen The Grinning Man twice already and have plans to go back twice more before its closing. (I want to bring every friend I have to see the show.) I thought that after The Woman in White closed, it would be a while before I found another show to fall head over heels for but The Grinning Man won me over before Act I had even finished. If you love tragic stories, hilarious comedy, semi-immersive productions, or simply incredible vocals than I highly recommend going to see it.

The Grinning Man is only open until 14 April so I'd recommend going to see it as soon as you can. It plays at the Trafalgar Studios and you can purchase tickets on their website (including £25 student tickets) or on TodayTix.

You can also check out my video review of The Grinning Man:

Photo Credit: Helen Maybanks
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