London Wanderings: The Grinning Man Musical

It was a dismal, rainy day in London and I was tired and ill. I was pretty sure I’d have to go back into hospital fairly soon: a belief which was backed up the following day when I ended up in A&E again. (I’m OK, don’t worry. Just a mild case of Angry Internal Organs, which is nothing unusual.)

Anyway I was not really in the mood for a musical and I considered staying at home, but in the end I decided it would be a good distraction from the crampy pains in my mid-section so off I went. 

On the way I stopped off for dinner at Walkers of Whitehall for a bland plate of fish & chips and an intriguingly nutmeggy sticky toffee pudding.

Then it was time to head to Trafalgar Studios. I was in the cheap seats so I had a slightly limited view, but at least the seats were comfortable and the view wasn’t so bad as to hinder the effects of the performance.

I was reminded why I don’t like going out by the arsehole of a woman sitting behind me, who told someone to throw my hoodie on the floor when I stood up to buy a bottle of water, and the person sitting next to me who made strange grunting noises instead of laughing. But if you don’t intrinsically dislike being around other humans that sort of thing might not bother you.

The staff were very pleasant and friendly, so at least that was something.

This is probably going to sound like a negative review on the whole, so before I properly start it I want to clarify that I don’t regret going. I did quite enjoy the evening and I didn’t leave the theatre thinking “god, what did I just watch?” but you’d be hard pressed to get me back there.

The storyline is sort of half based on Les Misérables, but more macabre. It’s set in London, but a different version from the one we know, and the show was very much presented with Londoners in mind: lots of little in-jokes (the royal palace being in Catford) are scattered throughout. At times some satirical commentary cut through the general amusement and made a well-placed point.

The Grinning Man’s eponymous central character had a grotesque grin scored onto his face as a young boy: now, years later, he has grown into a man and performs in a freakshow act with his blind adopted sister Dea. Their adoptive father Ursus lives with them and his humongous dog Mojo in a little cart, from which they run their performances and live their lives.

Across town in Catford Palace, three young people are in line for their father’s throne. One is a mad recluse; one the stereotypical poor little rich boy; and the third a nymphomaniac. Oh, and two of them are in love with each other. There’s a lot of brother-sister incest in this show.

As the story unfolds we discover that many people are hiding secrets, some larger than others… and at least one of them knows the story of how the Grinning Man got his grin. But will he find out?

The thing I liked most was the score. It was absolutely fascinating and I’d love to get my hands on it and fiddle around with it a bit. There were lots of minor chords and interesting sudden key changes; Tim Phillips & Marc Teitler did a brilliant job.

Unfortunately the singers didn’t live up to it. A couple of them carried the show: Sean Kingsley was beautiful, tender and evocative as Ursus, and Julian Bleach was amusing – occasionally bordering on hilarious – as the jester. The rest of the singers were often off-key, frequently a bit flat and generally just not quite up to the job.

Carl Grose of Kneehigh Theatre was involved in the production, and it shows. The mixture of puppetry and real-life action adds another level of grotesque beauty, and several scenes have a Kneehigh kind of feel to them. Personally I greatly enjoyed the ocean scene, with its use of bluey-green sheets to depict a person caught in a storm. I also kept thinking how if I had to wave huge sheets over someone’s head while they were singing I’d probably mess it up and they’d end up tangled in a mess of fabric, so just the manual dexterity was something to see.

The sets were intricate and fascinating, and the way the wolf-dog moved was truly brilliant. In terms of puppet handling I thought everyone did a fantastic job; if it’d been a straight theatre show rather than a musical I think I would have loved it, even though I normally hate being able to see scene changes because I am not a Brecht fan at all.

At times it felt like the show was trying to make some Big Important Points, especially in various songs that referenced how the Grinning Man was so relatable. People looking at him saw themselves, both as they really were and as something ‘other’, and this made them have a sort of quasi-religious experience and gave him something of a christlike cachet.

The second-rate singing cheapened the feel of the show, though, and made it seem more like a high school musical that was trying to be ‘deep’ rather than a grown-up show with philosophical undertones. Also I may be biased, but I’m pretty sure most of the singers in our high school musicals did a better job than the singers in this show, and that’s not saying much. Here I am about to die on stage in Jekyll & Hyde about fifteen years ago.

At the end of the first act came the traditional ‘big song’ which was meant to hook us in and make us hungry for act two, but it made me unsure whether I wanted to stay because some of the notes were wrong, and even the ones that were right didn’t all come at the correct times. By the end of act two I’d resigned myself to the sub-par singing from most of the cast so was going along with it all, but I found I didn’t really care about any of the characters and I think a large part of that was due to the substandard singing.

The horrible woman behind me ranted loudly about all the swearing and said it wouldn’t transfer well to the West End for that reason; personally swearing doesn’t bother me, and although I wasn’t a huge fan of the sexy scenes and the incest it wouldn’t have put me off. (“The incest wouldn’t have put me off” is not a sentence I ever thought I’d write. Blog life is weird.)

In summary: I wouldn’t recommend this show right now, but if it transferred to a bigger theatre, upgraded the majority of its cast members, and ensured everyone was snappier in their delivery, I think this could become something really special.

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