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Review: The Grinning Man, at Trafalgar Studios

Musical based on the work of Les Miserables author is self-aware and comical, with moments of sweeping drama

05 January, 2018 — By Catherine Usher

Louis Maskell in The Grinning Man. Photos: Helen Maybanks

ADAPTED from a Victor Hugo novel The Man Who Laughs, The Grinning Man started life in Bristol Old Vic last year and transferred to London after the script was slightly pruned. The fact that it’s a new musical based on the work of the Les Miserables author generates the kind of excitement that really gets your hopes up.

Yet the show is far removed from the sweeping drama and emotional highs and lows of Les Mis. Phantom of the Opera fans will recognise that the grinning man at the centre of the tale shares a facial disfigurement with their hero. But – again – that’s about the only thing the show has in common with the gothic beauty of The Phantom. The musical score is atmospheric, but it is nowhere near as memorable as either of the other shows.

For those expecting another lavish West End musical, this could be something of a disappointment. The Grinning Man is much more self-aware and comical, and its try-hard approach to wackiness can be a little off putting.

Sanne den Besten as Dea, and Louis Maskell as Grinpayne

It is set largely in a circus where Grinpayne (Louis Maskell) and his young, blind companion Dea (Sanne Den Besten) are raised by kindly puppeteer Ursus (Sean Kingsley). As youngsters the two children are brought to life as puppets, operated by Maskell and Den Besten (among others), who then play the pair as adults.

The puppet usage, although clever, does go on a little too long, so it’s a welcome change of pace when Maskell and Den Besten finally get to take on the roles fully. But the relationship between Grinpayne and Dea isn’t quite as poignant as it ought to be – when compared to, for example, Les Mis’s Marius and Cosette.

There are moments of sweeping drama, such as when the young hero (in puppet form) witnesses his mother singing to him from a boat in a storm, but they are surrounded by so much comedy that they can seem slightly comic themselves. The emotionally charged, star-crossed characters (and there are a few) really have to compete with the frequently wacky humour, so that the audience can find it difficult to engage with the more romantic or heart-breaking moments.

The two greatest strengths of the production are Julian Bleach as Barkilphedro and Sean Kingsley’s Ursus. While Kingsley is a powerful singer, Bleach provides a fantastic comic villain, charming the audience with his outrageous nastiness and devilish wit.

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