Referring to Bristol as “A human cesspool of inescapable misery” and then plainly stating that “Life is pain and then you die”, it wasn’t long before you knew the oh-so-cheery tone of Bristol Old Vic’s The Grinning Man.
Based on Victor Hugo's The Man Who Laughs, this macabre musical originally performed at the South West venue in 2016 before transferring to the West End a year later.
Facial lacerations, losing his mother, finding a baby, raised by a stranger, Grinpayne didn’t have the easiest start to life. All this comes early in the production and then the plot starts to fade into the background as Grinpayne begins to search for reasons why he has his ear to ear scar.
It’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’ love story fits uncomfortably (in a good way) in the unsettling visuals creating a wonderful clash that Bristol Old Vic does so well. Other than this and Grinpayne’s ongoing ‘find myself’ search, the plot is quite weak but the performances hold up the shakey story.
We mostly hear the protagonist Louis Maskell singing as the vulnerable and tortured Grinpayne rather than speaking which is a shame, although his voice is strong. The depiction of the blind character, Dea, felt a bit stereotypical and forced but the ensemble were brilliantly bizarre as the circus entertainers.
The macabre musical is crammed full of eerie songs which lends itself to the strange setting of a freaky circus. None of the numbers have stayed with me but were still enjoyable.
The puppetry throughout was outstanding! From animals to young children every single one had you completely fooled and invested in the puppets emotions. A tricky storytelling technique that Bristol Old Vic never fails to nail.
As a Bristolian myself I particularly enjoyed the references to Stokes Croft but it was the strong visual effects and themes teamed that shone brightest. The play could do with some serious cutting down as the plot had to be stretched so thinly across the 2 and a half hours running time, but despite this it is still a pleasant watch.
You can watch The Grinning Man until midnight on July 3 by clicking here.