Thursday, October 27, 2016

'The Grinning Man' by Tim Phillips, Marc Teitler, Carl Grose and Tom Morris

27 October 2016

On Saturday we made a first ever visit to Bristol Old Vic – the oldest continuously operating theatre in the English-speaking world, currently celebrating its 250th anniversary. We were there to see 'The Grinning Man', a new musical by Tim Phillips and Marc Teitler, with book by Carl Grose. Bristol Old Vic Director, Tom Morris, has spent five years developing the show and the quality on display attests to the care a publicly subsidised theatre like Bristol Old Vic (which is funded by Arts Council England) can bring to developing new work. ‘The Grinning Man’ is loosely based on a novel by Victor Hugo (‘The Man Who Laughs’) about a man whose face has been disfigured to create a permanent gruesome smile. The character of The Joker in the Batman comics was apparently modelled on an early silent film adaptation of the Victor Hugo story. ‘The Grinning Man’ is set in an imaginary 18th century Bristol, echoing the period Bristol Old Vic was built. It’s a macabre musical that seems to be aiming somewhere between ‘Sweeney Todd’ and ‘The Phantom of the Opera’. While the show is very entertaining – and often very funny – I found it an odd mix. The tone is both childlike and crude – at one moment knowingly breaking the fourth wall and then reverting to a child-like fairy tale. It sometimes felt like a slightly uncomfortable adult pantomime. It is undoubtedly a high quality production, with Jon Bausor’s spectacular set engulfing the stage in a blood-dripping mouth. And I liked the absence of modern technology, in favour of some old fashioned stage trickery that felt in keeping with the period. There is some great puppetry from Gyre and Gimble (the team responsible for the puppets in the National Theatre production of ‘War Horse’, reviewed here in October 2015). The music is tuneful and ageless, if at times a little earnest for the prevailing comic tone of the show. There is a very strong cast with Sean Kingsley demonstrating an impressive singing voice as Ursus the fairground showman and Julian Bleach stealing the show as the pantomime villain Barkilphedro the Fool. Louis Maskell is a fine lead as the hero Grinpayne, particularly as he has to sing most of his numbers through a scarf tied over his mouth. And it was good to see former Bellowhead percussionist Pete Flood among the band. ‘The Grinning Man’ is a fascinating show with high production values but it didn’t feel completely coherent. It will be interesting to see whether it can be honed into a stronger show.

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