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.”

IMG_20180506_090008_171

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

 

Review: Frozen at Theatre Royal Haymarket

“Dark and disruptive, Frozen doesn’t make for comfortable viewing – and rightly so.”

IMG_20180304_144159_548

In the days running up to my most recent visit to the West End, many people thought I was travelling to watch princesses skate around an ice rink singing Let It Go. In reality, Bryony Lavery’s Frozen could only be described as the polar opposite of its Disney blockbuster namesake.

Set in England in the 1980s and 1990s, this psychological thriller returns to London some 16 years after it appeared in the National Theatre. Frozen tells the stories of Nancy (Suranne Jones), Ralph (Jason Watkins) and Agnetha (Nina Sosanya), three people whose lives become intertwined in the grisliest of circumstances.

Ralph is a disturbed individual with a fondness for tattoos, a beloved collection of pornography tapes featuring minors and a habit of kidnapping, abusing and murdering children. Heartbreakingly for Nancy, her 10-year-old daughter Rhona falls prey to him on the way to visit her grandmother one afternoon, though she doesn’t discover this until several years after her disappearance.

Agnetha, an American psychologist, has an interest in criminal psychology and works to unearth the reasons behind why people like Ralph behave the way they do. Frequenting the prison where Ralph is held, she works to gain his trust – and insight into why he did what he did.

For me, Watkins was the stand-out performer from the get-go, delivering a performance that was no less than chilling. So convincing is his performance that there were times throughout the play when I actually forgot that he isn’t the character he’s portraying. As unsettling as it was to watch Ralph pore over his VHS collection and treat each tape with such care and affection (even referring to them as ‘precious’ at one point, which was all the more disturbing given that the word is oftentimes used to describe a child), there are moments when he appears entirely harmless. And that is exactly what makes Watkins’ performance so sinister.

Jones, staring off into the distance as she delivers her monologues, creates a likeable character from the outset; something I’ve found her able to do in all her on screen roles. Frozen gifts her with some powerful scenes and, although the tension is occasionally broken with a witty comment or two, Nancy’s grief never fades – it’s almost as though you can see it resting upon her shoulders, weighing her down.

Sosanya portrays multidimensional Agnetha with true conviction. Smart and savvy, Agnetha’s character is much more difficult to empathise with, despite having so much empathy herself. To say that it’s hard to put yourself in the shoes of someone who would choose to comfort a convicted paedophile and serial killer is an understatement yet, somehow, Sosanya succeeded in getting me to feel something more than disgust towards Ralph, if only for a split second.

Ralph, having lived most of his life emotionally detached from the crimes he’s committed, struggles under the weight of feeling a sudden sense of remorse for the things he has done and – with young characters unseen throughout the majority of the show – I feel this makes Rhona’s appearance in the final few scenes representative of Ralph’s new-found conscience.

Dark and disruptive, Frozen doesn’t make for comfortable viewing – and rightly so. The life-destroying events that Frozen brings to stage exist beyond the walls of TRH and that’s exactly why this story is such an important one.

Approx. running time: 2 hours 30 minutes
Understudies: None