MUSICAL REVIEW: The Grinning Man ★★★★
The Grinning Man
Bristol Old Vic
Saturday 5th November 2016
For months I have seen the intriguing poster for 'The Grinning Man’ and have every time said I would love to go, and with reviews praising the production so much, it really got me excited and full of big expectations, but did it live up to the hype in my mind?
I walked into the auditorium, to which I was in the Gallery, the top seating at Bristol Old Vic, to be welcomed to what I think was the most creative stage design I have seen since 'Under Milk Wood’, as the mouth of Grinpayne, our main protagonist in this production played stunningly by Louis Maskell, was stretched out all across the top and bottom of the stage, so I visualised throughout the whole performance that all the action on stage was coming from inside his mouth! The grotty curtain was the words 'The Grinning M’ also made the atmosphere feel very circus like with it's lettering, and throughout the performance this genre of circus comes into play quite a lot when Grinpayne is viewed as a freak!
Julian Bleach is an actor I have followed for years from his work on Doctor Who, Sarah Jane Adventures, and Torchwood, and is known well for his distinctive voice, plays the role of Barkilphedro, the clown who holds a secret away from Grinpayne, to such conviction that you really forget you are watching a production on stage. I felt this many times also throughout the production due to its slick timing in comedy and dramatic moments, and clearly had me hooked as even though some of the plot points become predictable, I was still shocked to see them unfold on stage.
Another amazing part of this production is the use of puppetry, which for myself became the standout part of this show with such movement that made the puppets feel like genuine children of Grinpayne and Dea. This is puppetry unlike any other in my judgement, and also such talent in the conviction of detail that I have not thoroughly seen since watching 'War Horse’ many years ago! The puppetry is used throughout the whole performance but is first explored through the prologue which tells the story of a young Grinpayne who finds a baby with a dead mother one night in a snow storm, which later turns out to be Dea (Audrey Brisson). The way that the puppeteers go so far into detail that they show breathing of the two characters in this segment reveals how remarkable and believable these puppets are! I also really liked how Audrey and Louis were also operating their puppet versions of themselves before then revealing in the climax of the prologue their appearances that also drew homage to 'War Horse’ when Big Joey jumps over effortlessly little Joey, showing a jump into the present moment, to which is what 'The Grinning Man’ does perfectly.
The highlight of this production though is the music that is formed in this world to make the setting and surroundings so authentic. Right from the beginning when the puppets are on stage, having Louis Maskell operating his puppet gives such a creative aspect to sing himself but control the puppet to his moments. Personally my favourite song in the production was 'Labyrinth’ which opens up the second half of the production, but so many songs are so memorable that you will go home still humming them in your head for hours, if not days after the performance has finished! This production took 5 years to produce for The Bristol Old Vic, and I believe that it really shows when put on stage and seeing the efforts and attention to detail that has gone into make 'The Grinning Man’ so immersive and really taking you on a journey to follow Grinpayne’s story to finding out who cut his mouth and why it happened, to which the climax of this production answers so beautifully and perfectly, but if not a little predictable!
Overall, The Grinning Man is exceptional and a production to which I would go and see many times if I had the chance! It's running into its final week at The Old Vic, and I could not highly recommend this production anymore to anyone who is interested in going, because you really get taken away from the real world and feel compelled to the action on stage in front of you!