On my last day in Bristol, England I headed over to the Old Vic. Theatre, one of the oldest- if not THE oldest continuously running theatre in England. I snagged a ticket for the matinee performance of The Grinning Man, a macabre new musical. Macabre, for those who don’t know (don’t worry I didn’t either), is anything that is disturbing because it concerns with or caused a fear of death. The musical is based off of Victor Hugo’s novel The Man Who Laughs. The famous villain the Joker from the Batman series is also directly linked to this novel, funny enough. Other than the hints given by the posters of the show I had absolutely no idea what this musical was about. There’s a type of Christmas morning excitement that follows me whenever I see a new piece of theatre. A whole new world is about to be unfolded and performed for the audience members, how is that NOT exciting!
As I entered the Georgian-style theatre I was greeted by a wide smile that surrounded the frame of the stage. On each side you could see the forcibly extended smile, with trails of blood coming down the sides of the proscenium. It’s not an incredibly large stage, it extends much farther back than it seems from the audience. Having a high angled seat I was able to watch the show from a Busby Berkley kind of view. The designers did a wonderful job of layering the stage, keeping the eyes moving form corner to corner. Every item was reused or repurposed, like it might’ve been in a cheap vaudeville style show like this one was mimicking. The stately and regal frames of the royal family reversed to cheap wood frames around the sick and broken of Stokes Croft fair. They specifically mention Bristol, England as the capital of England in the beginning, which got my geography gears a’ turnin’. Now I know I may not be the brightest crayon in the box, but I sure know that London is the capital of England, right? Of course I was right, and how dare you assume I was that dim-witted, reader. I’m offended. The show is set in a sort of parallel universe of ours, where everything is the same but not…quite. This was set in a Bristol that had become the capital of pre-Victorian England because of a different shift of feudalistic power. Before the show even started I knew that I had entered into a world similar to The Corpse’s Bride or many other Tim Burton films, which the designers and directors fully acknowledged in the program.
The show began with an introduction to a man with clown makeup on, black stockings as a hat, and the strangest voice I’d heard in many a passing moon. This actor must’ve done voice over work before, because his voice was so familiar. There are some voices that are so strange that you never forget them, and this was one. His voice was a feathery raspy voice that had a beautiful vibrato. This was Barkliphedro, clown and servant to King Clarence, and our narrator/companion for the rest of the show. I think many theatre goers forget that before the 20th century most plays did not believe in the 4th Wall acting technique. This technique is mainly used on proscenium stages where it’s harder to make eye contact and connect with audience members. So even though it may feel strange to see an actor in a “classic” play make connection with you in the audience, they’re actually following the practices of that time period. Barkliphedro was the character who made the most contact with the audience, mainly with exposition of the story or through little mumbles of witty exasperation. Barkliphedro was much more of the Robert Armin* style of clown-witty and cunning rather than bafoonish and stupid. He was our tragic clown- he may be the villain but he’s also our favorite character because of how charmed we are by him and by how much we learn to care for him.
**Robert Armin was Shakespeare’s second resident clown in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. He was known for creating a new style of clowning that was extremely different from the slapstick and goonish style that was very popular during Shakespeare’s time. This is why later in his career, Shakespeare’s fool characters become much wittier than many of the main characters. Shakespeare was writing them for Armin.
Tim Burton + Les Miserables +Moulin Rouge = The Grinning Man is probably the best image I can give you for this production. Yes, it was a three hour show, but I was never so bored that I zoned out or stopped caring about the show. Usually if it seemed “slow” another actor would enter and return to the quick tempo of the show. Since the incredible production of War Horse, every director and their uncle has tried to put puppets into their show. The type of puppets used in War Horse (diagram below) and The Grinning Man are
life size and use multiple actors to give as much life to the puppet as possible. Actors and puppeteers will spend months researching the movement of the animal, which was a wolf in The Grinning Man. It had two actors operating it, one as the legs and lower back and one as the head and torso. The attention to detail was so awesome to watch. Just staring at its breaths, head shakes, or paw pats was captivating. There were also two puppets used as the representation for Grinpayne and Dea. We learn these character’s backstories in a puppet show because it has become a novelty show that these characters perform every day. As the puppet show continues it eventually switches to the real actors as they grow older. Grinpayne and Dea refer to themselves as broken children because of their common pasts of pain and suffering. Not only were the puppets used to give the exposition, they’re also a direct representation of that wooden brokenness that both characters feel. Even though both of them have lived painful lives, they still retain an air of innocence that kept them in the category of the “holy outcast.” When we watch children playing with toys or their baby doll, there is no disconnect between the two. They are friends without introduction or a need of an understanding, kids create lives and stories (or at least I did) for their toys- children are theatre makers! The connection between the actors and the puppets was very seamless, I was surprised at how intrigued I was by the relationship between the two puppets. I wasn’t even watching the actors, I wanted to watch the interaction between (puppet) Grinpayne and Dea! There was a superb moment of film technique when Dea and Mojo,the wolf, burst through the stained glass window in a moment of slow-motion action. The window split apart as loud sounds of glass breaking shattered the audiences ears, it really was like watching a piece of slow-motion film. A round of applause for the technicians!
In both Hugo and Dickensian literature we see the sanctity of poverty. The saintly misfits, like Smike (The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickelby), Fantine (Les Miserables), and Oliver Twist. Dea was your typical Ophelia or Cosette type of character, seemingly touched by heaven in her innocence and grace. Because of Dea’s blindness she loves Grinpayne without seeing his disfigurement. This leads to conflict because Grinpayne whines that Dea doesn’t know the “real” him because she’s never seen his smile. But his disfigurement isn’t “him,” it only keeps him from realizing who he truly is. His smile is his own mask to hide behind, because he has never lived without the thought of being “the freak,” so as soon as he is accepted, nay, worshiped, he has no idea who he is anymore. Grinpayne yells at her about her inability to “see” him and his ugliness, but I mean she’s felt his face and kissed his ghastly mouth, so his argument was very thin. I’m pretty sure his mouth would’ve been just as ugly to kiss as it was to gaze upon. It’s hard acting blind on stage, but between the actress and her white contacts it was convincing. It’s unfortunate that I kept thinking “Well I’m glad I wasn’t DISTRACTED by her blindness!” I know that sounds like an absolutely horrific thing for me to think, but I say this because of how hard it is to act convincingly blind, people!…. I should just stop while my grave is still shallow.
There is a set of three imperial heirs-two silly and frivolous, one serious and the next queen of “England.” The two silly siblings share a very…specific type of love that is described as “The only instance where incest is not totally revolting.” The incestuous lovers’ “redemption” scene at the end of the play was a little much. As the couple was reunited we returned to the extremely broad and gaudy style of acting mostly used at the beginning of the play, so it was somewhat jarring to pop in this little bit. The duke’s (silly son) death was very funny but looking back it did take away from Grinpayne who had just had a HUGE breakthrough. Grinpayne had just overcome his cloudy memory and remembered his father, which was a pretty big deal. The duke’s demise was very similar to the death of Pyramis in the play put on by the rude mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. With every “last” breath there was suddenly a renewal of life and we laughed and then sighed because the joke was starting to get old, as it always does. The rules of three, folks, it’s a rule for a reason. Just sayin’.
The music in this show was very similar to Les Miserables in the style of sweeping ballads and lively chorus numbers, but the composer used the minor key composition of Danny Elfman’s music. Below is a clip from the show, sung by our two leads Grinpayne and Dea. Ooh, it gives me goose pimples every time I listen to it! Louis Maskell, Grinpayne, has a wonderful tenor voice that soared (no, really) through the walls of the Old Vic. It was so refreshing to hear a non-rock musical, and I’m not sorry to say that in the slightest. I haven’t been able to find the full recording anywhere, but on YouTube you can find a few of the songs-definitely worth a listen. As I sat and reflected after the show I was reminded that not every musical is meant to be a cash cow endeavor, like Mamma Mia! or really anything on the West End right now. The director wrote,”Music is the emotional muscle of theatre. When it works, it takes a character or a situation to the heart of the audiences and fills it with feeling.” Whether you agree with this or not, it was very true for the music of The Grinning Man.