Bristol Old Vic’s 250th anniversary has been the cultural highlight of the year. Their latest production, Tim Morris’s ‘The Grinning Man’, based on a novel by Victor Hugo (‘L’Homme qui rit’, written in 1869) tops it off.
Set in fictional Bristol, this grim “fairy-tale” features Grinpayne, a scarred hero masked to hide his eternal grin in search of his brutal mutilator. The mystery of the scar is at the heart of the play.
Interestingly, the sight of Grinpayne’s unmasked face – brilliantly theatricalized with an inflated evil cartoonish mask – awakens a spiritual response by all. He suddenly becomes an anti-hero, in a truly bizarre fashion.
The host of the show, however, is Barkilphedro, a dark clown residing at the court of King Clarence, fantastically played by Julian Bleach. He rules the stage: he’s there to present you to everyone, to hide the mystery, and then reveal it; to scare you, and make you laugh, and then pity him.
He introduces the audience to King Clarence’s three children – one of whom will become the queen, whereas the other two, Lord David and Duchess Josiana, mocked for their undeserved royalty. The story of how poor Grinpayne came to have the grinning scar is revealed gradually, in flashback, using puppetry – again played by Barkilphedro, the highlight of his performance. The audience gradually learns about the clown’s hand in everything.
The music, composed by Tim Phillips and Marc Teitler and performed live, strengthens the performance and sends chills and brings laughter, encircling the show.
The puppetry is masterful. The swapping between two and three hands is smooth and effortlessly brings on a set of characters that captures the audience, diverting their attention from the operators themselves, making it real without hiding it.
The Grinning Man is a story about letting go of the past, questions psychological and physical abuse, dramatizes the havoc that guilt brings on, and inevitably shows the overwhelming power of love.
A long standing ovation doesn’t happen often, and The Grinning Man ended on this note. Following the three-hour show, Bristol Old Vic was shaking with clapping, laughter, and awe – deservedly so. Have you been laughed at? The musical runs at Bristol Old Vic until 13 November: http://www.bristololdvic.org.uk/grinningman.html.
Photos: Simon Annand