|Photo: Simon Annand|
Victor Hugo wrote his novel The Man Who Laughs while exiled from France to Guernsey in 1869; exiled owing to the political content of his previous novels. So instead The Man Who Laughs focuses on a boy, Gwynplaine, who was mutilated as a child to have a permanent grin carved onto his face, committing him to a life in the freak shows. But his smile becomes infectious and soon Gwynplaine is embroiled in a quest to uncover his past that, inevitably, flutters over the heart.
While two Hollywood films and several theatrical adaptations have been attempted in the past, here Bristol Old Vic director Tom Morris gives the story of whole new lease of life as a brand new musical called The Grinning Man.
With some of the Kneehigh Theatre crew helping out (Carl Grose has written the script, and Patrycja Kujawksa is in the cast), and with Morris re-enlisting some of the Gyre and Gimble puppetry tricks from the hugely acclaimed War Horse, The Grinning Man is setting its flag quite high with a strong pedigree.
Taking our seats in the Bristol Old Vic auditorium, you’re instantly hit by designer Jon Bausor’s impressive work - with the entire proscenium transformed into a terrifyingly huge grinning mouth, with the blood red mouth creases spreading up the sides of the theatre and poking into the upper circle.
Transferring the narrative from Hugo’s France to Morris’ Bristol, our revamped story is narrated by the bitter clown Barkilphedro (actor Julian Bleach steals the show), who has served a lifetime in the royal court at the hands of the selfish and unappreciative Clarence family. But how is this story intertwined with that of the small boy, now named Grinpayne (and played by Louis Maskell)?
Child Grinpayne is portrayed by a puppet, and shows us the young boy being brutally separated from his mother and left to fend for himself owing to his hideously disfigured face. Upon saving a newborn baby whose mother died in the snow, he and the blind baby, Dea (Audrey Brisson), are taken in by kindly travelling performer Ursus (Sean Kingsley) and his dog Mojo (a work of puppetry genius from Gyre and Gimble). They grow up to live a life in the freak shows - notably the Stokes Croft Fair: a seedy underbelly of Bristol for those cast out by respectable society.
Of course, the stories of Grinpayne and the royal Clarence family become inextricably linked, and as Barkilphedro boasts of his past glories we uncover the true story of just what caused child Grinpayne to be separated from his natural parents and to be sentenced to an agonised life in the carnival. And all the while, Bausor’s designs continue apace throughout The Grinning Man, turning freak show carts into palace boudoirs, and the entire stage into a gothic cathedral complete with pillars and smashed stained glass. It’s all quite literally a work of art.
Combining the carnivalesque, the pantomime and the musical, Morris’ The Grinning Man is a feast for all of the senses - especially the ears, thanks to the live performances by the musicians at the side of the stage. Bravo!
Read director Tom Morris’ diary about creating The Grinning Man in The Guardian here.
The Grinning Man is performed at Bristol Old Vic’s main theatre until 13 November. Click here for more information and to buy tickets.