Tuesday, 19 December 2017

REVIEW: The Grinning Man at the Trafalgar Studios

Rarely since its transformation into Trafalgar Studios in 2004 has a production felt so at home in this tight intimate venue. The auditorium has been dressed into Trafalgar Fair freak show stage which sets the tone for the production and once the band strikes up the stage explodes with a fusion of creativity and invention that immediately engages, excites and entices us into the strange world of the Grinning Man. The opening song "Laughter is the best medicine" is a delightfully comic scene setter underlying a central theme of the tale.

The creation of a musical from Victor Hugo's epic nineteenth century novels has of course been done before but Carl Grose has adapted "The man who laughs " into a dark mortality tale about the haves and the havenots and about the search for truth. The creative team of director Tom Morris, set designer Jon Bausor, lighting designer Rob Casey, choreographer Jane Gibson and sound designer Simon Baker have created a macabre strange world inhabited by flawed characters who gradually reveal the truth. It is spell binding at times (occasionally too laboured at others) as the story unfolds not just on the stage but in the auditorium itself. 

The production has already been acclaimed in its earlier outing in Bristol Old Vic for its puppetry of the young Grinpayne and Dea and the extraordinary protective wolf Mojo and certainly the puppeteers breathe amazing life into their charges, which helps us ignore the puppeteers themselves even when they are singing . At on point we are presented with a puppet show, within the show ,within the show!

However it is the four central characters that make this production so wonderful. Louis Maskell reprises the role he created in Bristol as the Grinning Man, Grinpayne. His disfigured face hidden by a scarf for much of the play, he nevertheless delivers a faultless performance so we feel his pain and his love. 

Opposite him is Sanne Deb Basten as the blind Dea with haunting ethereal look that exudes sadness but brings hope and their adopted father, the showman, Ursus, is played by Sean Kingsley, a tormented soul living with his terrible secrets and at his best in the beautiful "Stars in the sky".

The fourth character is the weird Barkilphedro, the clown, played with strong clear voice and wonderful comic pathos by Julian Bleach. The character borrows from Commedia Del Arte, Rocky Horror and Young Frankenstein but with a dark sinister streak and an ambitious desire to better himself. They are supported by an excellent cast playing the royal family, other characters and musicians.

The music by Tim Philips and Marc Teitler and played by Tom Deeny and a band of four is central to the productions success with a mix of styles and is the sort of score that grows on you with familiarity. You won't leave the theatre humming the tunes but you will recognise the various celebrity versions already available!

There are influences here from medieval theatre, Monty Python and even the comic books of Batman but the team have moulded this into a powerful morality tale on the search for truth, Forgiveness and love and as a result have created a unique uplifting touching experience that deserves to run in the West End for years to come.

Review by Nick Wayne 

Rating: ★★★★
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