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

 

Review: Godiva Rocks at The Belgrade, Coventry

“Alexia McIntosh was without question the strongest performer in the show.”

I was lucky enough to be living in London when my passion for theatre developed. With the West End just a short tube journey away from my previous home, I had some of the country’s – and world’s – finest shows within comfortable reach.

Having moved out of the city several months ago, I’m now dealing with the fact that my obsession is just that little bit harder to feed; I’m also preparing myself to dabble in productions outside of London, hopeful that there are shows just as incredible as the ones that grace the West End stages.

Last week, I went to see Coventry-based musical Godiva Rocks at the Belgrade Theatre in the city centre. Despite being fully aware that it wouldn’t have the same production values and high-calibre cast as the shows I’ve seen in recent months, I was impressed with Libby Watson’s set design and lighting from the moment I stepped through the door. Unfortunately, it turned out to be one of few things I admired about the show.

Set in the 1980s, Godiva Rocks focuses on a family of four; the father, Leo Freeman (Ross Gurney Randall), is slowly taking over the city with his redevelopment plans, much to the disgust of the people of Coventry. His daughter, Nell (Georgie Ashford), meets Patrick (Lejaun Sheppard) at a party and soon learns that he’s in search of who he believes to be his estranged father. The pair soon develop feelings for each other, but Leo fiercely opposes the match. With some cheesy duets and angst thrown in for good measure, Nell’s and Patrick’s stories soon wind together in the strangest of ways.

Frequent flashbacks to the 1960s show a trio of female singers – one of whom is Rosa (Alexia McIntosh), Patrick’s mother – and an on-going dispute over who is the most deserved lead singer. I’m sorry to say, this wasn’t the most coherent of storylines. It isn’t clear from the outset that the characters in the flashbacks are also characters from the show’s present day.

Alexia was without question the strongest performer in the show. Her voice was powerful, her solo was impressive and she was a joy to watch on stage. Judging by the cheers and applause in the room after she performed her solo, I wasn’t the only person of this opinion.

Other notable performances came from 2007 X Factor contestant, Niki Evans, playing the role of feisty singer, Bev, and Lejaun for his portrayal of Patrick. Both had good voices, although Lejaun’s didn’t quite gel with Georgie’s during their duets. And while Georgie had a good, yet unremarkable singing voice, I found her acting wooden and was surprised so learn that she’s appeared in the West End.

While there were aspects of the show I liked – the showcase of and passion for homegrown musicians, and seeing a city I’ve previously struggled to connect with brought to life on stage – Godiva Rocks felt more like a poor imitation of Dreamgirls than it did the ultimate Coventry musical.

Approx. running time: 2 hours 25 minutes
Understudies: none named