Review: The Grinning Man at Trafalgar Studios

“Despite its dark and dismal depths, The Grinning Man is one of the most humorous West End shows I’ve seen to date.”

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Having originally booked to see The Grinning Man back in January, illness prevented me from attending; but with its outstanding reviews, captivating imagery and strong recommendations, I felt I couldn’t just let this one slip through my fingers – and I’m sincerely glad that I didn’t.

I can honestly say I fell in love with this show from the very moment I walked down the corridor and into Trafalgar Studio 1. With hundreds upon hundreds of multicoloured lights reaching up to the ceiling, circus posters plastering the walls and the iconic grinning stage, the care and attention that have gone into the set design are second to none – and then there’s the show, itself…

Adapted from Victor Hugo’s The Man Who Laughed and brought to life by director, Tom Morris, and writer, Carl Grose, The Grinning Man made its debut in the Bristol Old Vic back in 2016.

Disfigured as a child and later paraded around as the freak of Trafalgar Fair, this musical tells the tragic tale of Grinpayne (Louis Maskell) and the perpetual smile engraved into his cheeks. Doted on by his blind companion, Dea (Sanne Den Besten), the two only separate when Princess Josiana (Amanda Wilkin) takes somewhat of a shine to Grinpayne and whisks him away in an attempt to ensure he rises to stardom.

Although the entire cast delivered noteworthy performances, Maskell steals the show in the lead role. His movements, at times, are more puppet-like than the puppets themselves, demonstrating the fact that he’s mastered the art of puppetry in more ways than one.

And speaking of the puppets, it’s unsurprising just how enchanting Mojo the wolf and young Grinpayne and Dea are, given that they’re creations of the original War Horse puppeteers, Gyre & Gimble. At one point, I’m sure I caught a gleam in the young boy’s eye from the front row that had me feeling more emotional than many human performers ever could.

Mojo was expertly handled by understudies, Rachel Leonard and Leo Elso, who blended into the background as puppeteers should, allowing us as the audience to be lost in the performance and maybe, if just for a second, forget that Mojo isn’t real.

Despite its dark and dismal depths, The Grinning Man is one of the most humorous West End shows I’ve seen to date; introduced by jester Barkilphedro (Julian Bleach) as ‘a tale so utterly horrid, yet strangely uplifting’, it’d be hard to coin a more befitting one-line summary – and there’s certainly no better character to introduce the show as such, plus Bleach, for me, gave one of the greatest performances of the show.

From set and score to stellar cast, I’m surprised that this show has received little acknowledgement bar critical acclaim. I, for one, would love to see it return to the West End to one day receive the recognition it deserves.

Approx. running time: 2 hours 50 minutes, including interval
Understudies: Christina Bloom as Queen Angelica, Jonathan Cobb as King Clarence, and Rachel Leonard and Leo Elso as Mojo