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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Grinning Man
Trafalgar Studios  Winter 2017-2018

A kind of Anti-Panto, this import from the Bristol Old Vic is a fairytale with the darkness of the Brothers Grimm and the macabre humour of Struwwelpeter. Its combination of melodrama and high spirits can prove a welcome antidote to overdoses of holiday cheer. 

The book by Carl Grose (to music by Tim Phillips and Marc Teitler, with lyrics credited to all three plus director Tom Morris) is based on a Victor Hugo story of a boy sadistically disfigured to produce a permanent obscene grin. 

Adopted by a travelling puppeteer, he grows up performing puppet versions of his own story until he is old enough to search for the villain who marked him. The quest involves him with a blind girl, a hanged man, an evil court jester and the bizarre royal family of his country. 

Surprisingly he affects almost as many people positively as negatively, inspiring redemptive reformations until he himself is freed from the need for vengeance by the love and goodness reflected back on him. 

And all this is presented in a mix of high-serious melodrama and campy self-reflexive joking that shouldn't work, but does. 

Director Teitler keeps the central characters the boy, the fatherly puppeteer, the blind girl wholly serious, providing a solid dramatic core around which the more comic elements can provide filigree without completely breaking the tone. 

The songs are largely plaintive ballads, various characters expressing their various unhappinesses (and there are inescapable melodic echoes of Lloyd Webber and Schonberg), though there are occasional contrasts, like an opening number that celebrates the entertainment value of encountering those worse off than you. 

But the production's exuberance keeps breaking out of the frame, the action moving to the orchestra pit, the aisles and even climbing around the seats, and there is some clever puppeteering from the same people who created War Horse. 

Central to letting the wild humour out and then reining it back in is Julian Bleach as the sardonic narrator-jester. 

Playing much the same role (and giving a very similar performance) as he did in Shockheaded Peter almost two decades ago, Bleach finds every opportunity to writhe, mug, doubletake and generally react comically as his character tries to distance himself from the overly serious play he finds himself in. 

It is a masterly performance that holds and manipulates the audience with panache and assurance. 

Louis Maskell is appropriately serious and sympathetic as the hero, and there are equally touching performances by Sanne Den Besten as the girl and Sean Kingsley as the adoptive father, and counterbalancing broad comic characterisations by Julie Atherton, Mark Anderson and Amanda Wilkin as the royals. 

There are so many things about The Grinning Man, and such a mix of things, that shouldn't work. But they do, making this musical a thoroughly satisfying guilty pleasure for the Scrooges and Grinches among us.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - The Grinning Man - Trafalgar Studios 2017

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