It's been a good week for new streams. A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Last Five Years and now The Grinning Man. If you are not familiar with this title, it is a bit of a cult hit. The show is based on Victor Hugo's 1869 novel The Man Who Laughs and if you thought this one might be a bit less miserable than another famous musical adapted from his work (I forget the name), you would be wrong.
The Grinning Man opened at the Bristol Old Vic in 2016 before moving to the West end for a limited run in 2017. In the years since, this show has not been forgotten and has remained in the hearts of its legions of fans. So thank God Bristol Old Vic decided to dig out their "bootleg" (their words, not mine) copy of the show for us all to enjoy while we're stuck at home.
The story is about a boy named Grinpayne who was brutally disfigured as a child. Through the show, he tries to discover the truth about his own history and who carried out the terrible deed on him. The narrative is told in part through the clever use of puppetry with the actor who plays Grinpayne as an adult, the wonderful Louis Maskell, controlling and voicing the puppet version of him as a child. Puppetry in musicals may have been a bit overdone in recent years (I Can't Sing ruined it for everyone) but this is one of the better attempts. The use of the staging in general in this show is one of its strongest points, and the moment where Grinpayne first reveals the extent of his wound is truly horrifying if not slightly reminiscent of the Phantom of the Opera.
The cast are extremely talented and one of the best things about this show. Louis Maskell channels the emotional depth and anger of Grinpayne with a truly incredible performance, not to mention how rich and beautiful his voice is, belting as if his life depended on it. Audrey Brisson holds her own against Maskells masterclass performance, playing love interest Dea, while Julian Bleach steals scenes as ambitious (and creepy) clown Barkilphedro. Special mention has to go to Gloria Onitiri for her standout role as the insatiable Duchess Josiana.
The show isn't without its flaws. First of all, it is far too long. At two and a half hours it does feel a little dragged out at times and there is the danger of losing interest. The narrative can get a little clumsy and disjointed at times, with subplots venturing on predictable (the identity of Dea for one) to pointless. The comic relief at moments in the show reminds of the Thenadiers in Les Miserables but doesn't blend in as seamlessly so does feel like you are watching a different show at times.
The other niggle I have with this show are the songs. First of all there are too many of them and they range from being annoying, poorly written or forgettable. I know a lot of people love the cast recording of it but I just couldn't get into the songs at all. For a huge musical fan, I actually found the moments they weren't singing to be more enjoyable (despite the fact I am obsessed with Maskells voice).
It is worth noting this was filmed when it was a very new show so it might have improved on some of these points by the time it opened in London, but overall I was left feeling a little flat after watching this. I did see this when it was on at Trafalgar Studios and remember a similar feeling - not hating it but not quite loving it. This isn't a bad show by all means - an interesting story and fantastic staging, but a bit too inconsistent for me. I feel I am in the minority with this opinion so I would recommend watching it. The things the show does get right makes it worth watching .
The Grinning Man is available to stream via Bristol Old Vic until Friday 3rd July.