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A CurtainUp London Review
The Grinning Man
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To each according to their need."

&mdash The Queen
300 200 Julian Bleach as Barkilpedro, Louis Maskell as Grinpayne, Sanne Den Besten as Dea (Photo: Helen Maybanks)
Curiouser and curiouser is the new musical that comes to the Trafalgar Studios in London after outings in Edinburgh on the Fringe and at the Bristol Old Vic. Based on a Victor Hugo tale of a child horribly disfigured when a villain Barkilphedro (Julian Bleach), wearing a pair of tights on his head with a weighted ball in each toe, aims to eliminate an aristocratic family in order to grab their title for himself.

The fixed ear to ear smile is curiously reminiscent of Batman's The Joker but I had no idea how the joker gained his macabre rictus. So a quick visit to Wikipedia (Do extend a small contribution to keep this facility advertisement free) and we see that The Joker may have been derived from a playing card joker, or, according to at least one version of the collaborative originators, from the character of Gwynpaine derived from film versions of Victor Hugo's The Laughing Man. So this is the source of a Batman villain but despite his grin, in this show Grinpayne is our hero.

Our show opens with a wonderfully atmospheric storm at sea as the hideously deformed child Grinpayne (played at this stage by a puppet) but voiced and manoeuvred by his later adult self, (Louis Maskell) is separated from his loving mother (Sophia Mackay) as they attempt to board a ship bound for the Americas. Abandoned Grinpayne finds a woman and baby in the forest. The woman has died but Grinpayne rescues the child, a girl Dea (Sanne Den Besten) who is blind to Grinpayne's deformity.

Helping Grinpayne and Dea is a bedraggled wolf, Mojo (puppeteers James Alexander-Taylor and Loren O'Dair) who looks pretty fearsome but has a heart of pure gold. The skinny Mojo puppet is by the originators of the Warhorse horses and is a wonderful creation with the movement that these puppeteers (Finn Caldwell and Toby Olie) are famous for. Together Dea and Grinpayne find refuge with Ursus (Sean Kingsley) a wannabe freak show proprietor, puppeteer and druggist.

The parallel story features the royal family, King Clarence (Jim Kitson) , his daughter the Duchess, later Queen, Angelica (Julie Atherton), his son Lord David Dirry Moir (Mark Anderson) and daughter Duchess Josiana (Amanda Wilkin). Josiana is searching for new experiences to make her feel and pursues Grinpayne with sexual fervour, clad as she is in half a Cinderella frock leaving her underwear and nether regions easily accessed. Meanwhile Grinpayne is trying to find that man that caused his deformity and the resulting scene will make you think you have stumbled on a staging of The Pit and the Pendulum.

The music is pleasant enough, mostly sung through like mock opera, and most of it strangely familiar, think Les Miserables in style but the lyrics provide plenty of laughs. I liked Louis Maskell's acting performance and his singing voice rang clear and true but I thought Julian Bleach's Barkilpedro rather tedious with forced villainy which wasn't as funny as it should have been. Amanda Wilkins as Josiana too shows good potential in musical theatre with her strong singing voice.

The Grinning Man produced for me more grimacing than grinning, not helped by the incredibly uncomfortable seats in the Trafalgar Studios.

Musical Numbers
Before Interval
  • Laughter is the Best Medicine
  • Show Us Your Face
  • The Mother's Song
  • Hymn of the Hanged
  • Cry of Pain
  • Stars in the Sky
  • Blind to Nothing
  • Beauty and the Beast
  • Weep Oh Weep
  • Something's Going to Change
  • Never Seen a Face Like This
  • Born Broken
  • I am the Freak Show
  • Roll Up!
  • Josiana's Letter
  • A Scar is Born!
After Interval
  • Labyrinth
  • Only a Clown
  • Brand New World of Feeling
  • The Smiling Song
  • A New Beginning
  • Burn Down the Fair
  • Finale:
  • The Last Kiss
  • The Smile in Your Face
  • Revelation
  • New Royal Motto
  • Stars in the Sky (Reprise)

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The Grinning Man
Book Carl Grose based on Victor Hugo's L'Homme Qui Rit
Lyrics by Carl Grose, Tom Morris, Tim Phillips and Mark Teitler
Music and Orchestration: Tim Phillips and Mark Teitler
Directed by Tom Morris
Starring: James Alexander-Taylor, Mark Anderson, Julie Atherton, Sanne Den Besten, Julian Bleach, Louis Maskell, Amanda Wilkin, Loren O'Dair
With: Ewan Black, Christine Bloom, Jonathan Cobb, Leo Elso, Claire-Marie Hall, Jim Kitson, Sophia Mackay
Set Design: Mark Bausor
Puppetry Design and Direction: Finn Caldwell and Toby Olie
Movement Director and Original Choreography: Jane Gibson
Additional Choreography: Lynne Page
Costume Design: Jean Chan
Lighting Design: Rob Casey
Sound Design: Simon Baker
Running time: Two hours 30 minutes with an interval
Box Office: 0844 871 7632
Booking to April 14, 2018
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 19th December 2017 performance at Trafalgar Studios Whitehall, London
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