Yes, Bristol Old Vic. So far off-West End, making Phil so off the West End in more than one way. Does this make Phil a South West Whinger?*
Embarrassingly, a few years since Phil saw a show there. Sometime in the seventies to be precise. Two school trips to see Henry IV parts 1 & 2. A bit of research revealed they featured younger versions of John Nettles, Charlotte Cornwell and Ian Gelder, plus Timothy West and Constance Chapman delivering their Falstaff and Quicklys. Who knew? Phil certainly didn’t as he wasn’t prone to splashing out on programmes in those days. He doesn’t any more. How things come full circle.
But a musical of a Victor Hugo novel? Nah, that couldn’t possibly work could it?
This is Mr Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs, rebranded as The Grinning Man. But less branded than slashed. Across the face that is. Grinpayne (Louis Maskell) wears a bandage across his kisser due to something hideous that happened as a child. But what exactly? And who turned an orphan into a sideshow freak, who, when he reveals his Joker-like grin sends people into ecstasies?
His mutilation works on people like oysters on a first date. The new Queen (Patrycja Kujawska) falls for him, so does the Duchess (Gloria Onitiri) and also the blind girl Dea (Audrey Brisson, doing good blind); a hefty nod to Frankenstein. Meanwhile the ambitious royal jester Barkilphedro (Julian Bleach) does the dirty work for the soon-to-choke-to-death-on-a-piece-of-pork King and plots to receive a title.
Things start promisingly enough. It opens with the sinister clown (topical) setting a larky tone before we flashback to the more serious backstory (book Carl Grose) of how the man who wasn’t born with a smile on his face became disfigured.
Visually it’s often a treat. John Bausor has come up with an inventive 19th century carnival staging all set within a giant gaping pair of gnashers in need of serious dental attention. And there’s some splendid puppetry both three-dimensional and silhouette. At one point even the puppets operate puppets. Smart. Hardly surprising as Finn Caldwell and Toby Olié for Gyre & Gimble were the original puppeteers of War Horse. There’s a moth-eaten wolf and Grinpayne and Dea as Woodentops children, the latter puppet resembling a cross between E.T. and Anne-Marie Duff. All help to salvage some ponderous plods in the first act.
Tim Phillips and Marc Teitler‘s music, with lyrics by them plus Grose and the show’s director Tom Morris, has a surprising number of quite hummable tunes but the songs often get cast aside just as they’re getting going and then picked up later, just as you might do with your knitting. Frustrating.
Act 2 is infinitely better and kicks off with the haunting number “Labyrinth” warbled wonderfully by Maskell which can’t be easy from behind a prosthetic and bandage. Rather disappointingly the Phantom-esque reveal – which did make Phil think of Nina Conti‘s act – comes before the interval and not even at the end of Act 1. Phil would like to have been kept guessing much longer.
Sean Kingsley (excellent as Annas in Jesus Christ Superstar in the park) as Ursus and the pork-choker king, joins Maskell as another vocalist deserving a special Whinger doffed cap. Stuart Neal is very funny as Lord David, constantly telling others “Don’t call me David” which Phil took as a nod to politics. His occasional fourth-wall-breaking and improv is to die for, especially when he, err, “dies”.
But it is Bleach (right) who shamelessly hijacks the evening. Wearing something resembling a black pair of tights with a tennis ball in each toe on his head; he’s the creepiest thing since Joel Grey’s Emcee. His Act 2 puppet show is a laugh out loud highlight, “Puppetry’s not as easy as it looks”, especially as it’s performed on the second on-stage hostess trolley of the week.
With incest, adult language, some grim scythe-reaping and a rather health and safety unfriendly walk by two cast members from the stage to the back of the pit (as the stalls are called in Bristol) using the chair backs as stepping stones this isn’t one for the kiddiewinks. And it’s a bit of a mixed bag. Messy in parts, occasionally ragged round the edges and with some awkward tonal shifts and moreover at 3 hours the scythe needs some more exercise.
But there are glorious moments of insane madness (Bleach), macabre menace (Bleach), hilarity (Bleach) and occasional flashes of brilliance (Bleach). Those teeth surrounding the stage could do with some Bleaching too.
This was the press night of The Grinning Man. Phil was at the press night of the other Hugo muso, Les Misérables at The Barbican back in 1985. He had mixed feelings about that one too and look what happened there.
According to the programme a 1928 silent version of The Man Who Laughs was Bill Finger and Bob Kane’s inspiration for Batman’s villain the Joker.
* As suggested by a woman in the bar.