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