I know what you’re thinking: a Victor Hugo musical? It’ll never work. But seriously, going by past examples (… or to be specific, one main one), Hugo is a pretty promising starting point for a musical theatre adaptation. Maybe it’s because of the author’s interest in sprawling epics with unlikely protagonists. Like Jean Valjean or Quasimodo, Grinpayne in The Grinning Man, adapted from Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs (or L’Homme qui Rit), is somewhat of an outcast.
A childhood trauma leaves him orphaned and gives him an upwardly slanted gash emanating from his mouth. Set in Lonn’donn, a place eerily similar to Restoration London, Grinpayne performs in the fairs showing audiences his grotesque face. Grinpayne is always grinning, even when in despair. It’s that sort of poetic juxtaposition that promises for a powerful musical.
But only parts of The Grinning Man deliver. After an undercooked opening number Laughter is the Best Man, a clever framing device allows us insight into Grinpayne’s past. Puppets of young Grinpayne and his earliest friend Dea (Sanne Den Besten) are adeptly used, and perhaps the most magical part of the show is Mojo, (James Alexander-Taylor), a puppeted dog owned by Grinpayne and Dea’s guardian, Ursus (Sean Kingsley). The carnivalesque framing device provides a great macabre atmosphere, and the song Stars in the Sky provides a hauntingly beautiful melody that best captures an air of almost uplifting melancholy.
Yet as Grinpayne searches to understand who he is, the poignancy in Hugo’s creation – a man whose constant grin, a sign of happiness, is a result of deep sorrow and pain – is told to us rather than shown. Song lyrics like ‘you realise that you are him and he is you’ explain to us Grinpayne’s effect on his audiences, but we are never shown that experience nor are we invited to feel that experience ourselves.
Maskell is an astonishing singer and overall the cast is stellar in delivering Tim Phillips and Marc Teitler’s demanding and charming score. Maskell does his best to give interiority to Grinpayne, but neither Grose’s book nor the team’s lyrics offer much complexity for him or anyone else. Dea, although strongly performed by Den Besten, has no depth whatsoever. Earnest and blind, her sole role in the story is to be Grinpayne’s endlessly supportive lover, even when he has left her brokenhearted. Ursus has the most character development, and Kingsley performs it well.
Funny moments crop up, with characters like Dirry-Moir (Mark Anderson), a plummy prince who discovers Grinpayne, and his sister Josiana (Amanda Wilkin ), a lady addicted to lust. The best comedy comes from Julian Beach as Barkilphedro, the court jester with aims of becoming a lord. These jokes happen when Barkilphedro gives panto-like asides to the audience, mocking the melodrama occurring.
But it makes us unsure if we are to care about the characters, or if it is all just for a laugh. And that might be greatest problem with The Grinning Man: its ambition, although laudable, feels unfocused. With puppetry, ensemble musicians, multiple framing devices, and ever-shifting tones, it runs the risk of being a spectacle without much substance. Even the logic of the world is inconsistent: sometimes death is a tragic and formative experience, but at others it’s a nonsensical gag, one character seemingly invincible to the act of dying. Although enjoyable and performed spectacularly, The Grinning Man is epic yet inconsistent; it’s not a miserable attempt, but it’s not quite like that other momentous musical adapted from Hugo.
The Grinning Man is on until 17 February 2018 at Trafalgar Studios. Click here for more details.