Mad world

Michael Billing­ton takes a walk on the weird (and won­der­ful) side

Country Life Every Week - - Performing Arts -

There was some­thing in­or­di­nate about the poet, nov­el­ist and drama­tist Vic­tor hugo, but, as V. S. Pritch­ett once wrote, ‘take away ex­cess from hugo and the ge­nius van­ishes’. his love of ro­man­tic the­atri­cal­ity also makes him a gift for com­posers of op­eras and mu­si­cals: one has only to think of Verdi’s Rigo­letto and Er­nani and Bou­blil and Schön­berg’s Les Misérables.

To that list, one can now add The Grin­ning Man, with a score by Tim Phillips and Marc Teitler and a book by Carl Grose, which has just opened at Bris­tol Old Vic. I doubt it will make theatri­cal his­tory like the long-run­ning Les Mis, but it’s still a won­der­fully weird, macabre new mu­si­cal. The source is hugo’s 1869 L’homme qui rit, which Mr Grose has freely adapted. The set­ting is a myth­i­cal Bris­tol and the hero, Grin­payne, a typ­i­cal hugo out­cast: in this case, a fair­ground freak with a lac­er­ated face, who is adored by a blind girl and who causes ‘a gen­tle revo­lu­tion’ in those per­mit­ted to glimpse his un­masked fea­tures. But who is Grin­payne and how did his face come to be bru­talised?

It takes three hours for the mu­si­cal to give us the an­swers, but, al­though the show is over­long, it sus­tains our at­ten­tion. The plot may be hokum, but be­hind it, you sense hugo’s no­bil­ity of feel­ing: not just his sym­pa­thy with the out­sider, but his re­jec­tion of a fic­tional, ab­so­lutist monarch who ar­gues ‘to him that hath, much more shall be given’. The songs also switch neatly bet- ween the Ger­manic as­per­ity of Kurt Weill and a full-throated ro­man­ti­cism that leads the hero’s pro­tec­tor to re­peat­edly urge him to ‘bury your pain/start life again’. And there is a wel­come touch of ironic com­edy in a score that in­cludes a first-act num­ber en­ti­tled A Scar Is Born.

If the show works, it’s be­cause Tom Mor­ris’s pro­duc­tion hits the right bal­ance be­tween the ro­man­tic and the grotesque. De­signer Jon Bau­sor frames the ac­tion in a gi­gan­tic grin­ning scream that’s half­way be­tween ed­vard Munch and a Coney Is­land fair­ground. Finn Caldwell and Toby Olie, of War Horse fame, have cre­ated pup­pets that in­clude a re­mark­able skele­tal grey wolf.

The per­for­mances are also nicely pitched be­tween the heroic and the ab­surd. Louis Maskell as the muf­fled hero and Au­drey Bris­son as his sight­less wor­ship­per are warmly sym­pa­thetic, but the stand­out fig­ure is Ju­lian Bleach as a court fool called Bark­ilphe­dro. Mr Bleach is tall, an­gu­lar, has a face like a walk­ing death’s head and a voice that

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