The human mouth is made up of the vestibule and oral cavity proper. Apparently. There’s also a lot of teeth and a tongue and some tonsils lurking at the back. Most people don’t really know what it looks like because, well, it’s hard to look at. Doctors get the opportunity when your Open Wide to show them your strep throat and dentists are society’s specialists on the saliva-coated sink hole.
For their new musical, The Grinning Man, the Bristol Old Vic stage has mutated into a giant toothy gob, like at the opening of a fairground Tunnel of Doom. But as we get slurped inside it like little Jonah going down the whaley gullet, we don’t find 32 (give or take) shiny gnashers and a bit of morning muesli. Instead we get a red-headed women elegantly dying in the crisp snow, friendly wolves adopting babies and magic potions created from the flora of the deep, dark wood. In short, we are in a land that owes much to the motifs of a fairy tale. There’s also a waggonful of carnivalesque creations too. A freak show-within-a-real show, a squawking, depraved ruling class rolling in the mud, and a giant plastic mask that pops up like a surprise on the Haunted House ghost train ride.
In fact, Jon Bausor’s set design and the storybook-with-grimy-pages aesthetic that cloaks The Grinning Man are the predominant highlights of the production. The stalking, lethargic wolf (designed by Finn Caldwell and Tobe Olié) is beautifully bedraggled, looking like half its fur coat has been left on a barbwire fence somewhere. Also, the details on the inside wall of the travelling trailer create an entire fire-warmed cosy home out of limited clues. The use of a vaulted cathedral ceiling for one setting both creates the illusion of depth whilst in fact considerably shortening the BOV’s cavernous stage. A woodland winter landscape evolves into the site of the gallows, introducing the macabre to the serene and reinforcing a recurrent theme of West Country history to the piece. There’s also a lovely use of silhouette puppetry that echoes the famous monochromatic drawings or woodcut prints often found among the pages of creaking, leather-bound Little Red Ridinghoods.
Tim Phillips and Marc Teitler’s music backs up the old-timey travelling circus feel. A clanging (in a nice way) piano gets delivered straight from the Music Hall, and there’s plenty of strings and sp-hoo-kie, eerie sounds to accompany an onstage cackle. The lyrics (Carl Grose, Tom Morris, Tim Phillips and Marc Teitler) at times stray into the musical theatre danger zone of straightforwardly repeating plot points (such as a dead mother) when the audience have already been shown the same detail a good scene or so earlier. But the songs are performed well by a vocally talented cast. The stand-out singer is undoubtedly Gloria Onitiri as Duchess Josiana, who has easily the most complex and beautiful voice, yet feels somewhat underused (and horribly costumed) in a largely comic role.
So what I’m saying is it all looks good (ditto the imagery for the intensely-publicised marketing materials) and it pretty much sounds good. And I know by this point (9:21am on Friday morning) that other humans who were in the same theatre as me last night really enjoyed the whole thing. So when I head for the ‘but’ that you may have suspected was coming after all that praise, you’re welcome to dismiss it as the grumbles of someone whose frown did not get turned upside down by The Grinning Man and go on the advice of others who found it fantastic, life-affirming stuff.
BUT (there we go, a small word that sounds like a block of soap plopping into the bath tub water) despite the impressive set design and inventive puppetry (puppets even play with puppets) the underlying narrative is very patchy in places – and made more so by being stretched over a three hour running time. The major plot point is: a child was mutilated; find out how it happened. Only it’s particularly hard to care about how or why it happened when the main character, Grinpayne (Louis Maskell) is so underdeveloped. Maskell certainly has a strong delivery of the songs, but is subsequently provided with incredibly limited lines of speech. The ones he does have are spoken in a whining little boy voice that I’m sure is intended to created pathos and reveal the sadness of his soul… only I just wanted to tell him to ferme ta bouche (which perhaps says something about the sadness of my soul).
Essentially the elements that make it particularly striking from a design point of view – folkloric motifs and a belief in the unbelievable – make it suffer from the perspective of plot and character. Similarly, the historical aspects at times feel… awkward, given that this is an entirely new work created in 2016 and therefore not bound to recreate all the same ideas that existed in the past. The depiction of the blind woman, Dea (Audrey Brisson) at times feels, at best, old fashioned and tired. I mean, in the same way that Quasimodo isn’t really that accurate a depiction of scoliosis (ditto RIII), the little blind girl always staggering around with her arms at right-angles even in familiar settings and feeling everyone’s faces with clumsy hands, comes down a bit heavily on caricature. By the time she gets a sixth-sense where she can ‘see people’s feelings’ you can’t help slightly sighing and wondering if she’s also off to tune a piano next.
People don’t normally criticise fairy or folk tales for having underdeveloped characters or relying on stereotypes, so perhaps it’s wrong-headed to criticise The Grinning Man on the same points. As the Daily Mail said, “It’s Beauty and the Beast for grown ups.” And they meant that, I believe, in a good way. But when you travel down deep inside someone’s mouth, what you’re really looking for is their soul, not just pretty organs with decorative gore.
The Grinning Man is on at the Bristol Old Vic until 13th November. Click here for more details.