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.”


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: Apologia at Trafalgar Studios

“The perfect balance between comedy and drama, Apologia is an honourable piece of theatre – and it’s not only the cast that makes it so.”


Set in the UK in fairly recent times, this is Jamie’s Lloyd’s second take on Alexi Kaye Campbell’s 2009 family drama, and I can confidently say that it’s one of the greatest shows I’ve seen this year. With a healthy balance of comedy and drama, and a captivating cast to boot, the performance had me hooked from the opening moments – and I was lucky enough to see it all from the second row.

Kristin (Stockard Channing), a well-known activist and art historian, has recently released a memoir that has caused great offence to her sons, Peter and Simon, for one reason: she has failed to mention their existence. When Peter (Joseph Millson) shows up at his mother’s quintessential British home with girlfriend Trudi (Laura Carmichael), he’s an ill-disguised ticking time bomb, desperate to confront her over the omission, but refraining from doing so, presumably because it’s her birthday celebration.

This is Trudi and Kristin’s first meeting and Kristin makes little effort to hide her contempt over the fact that her son’s girlfriend in American, despite being American herself. Trudi’s patience with Kristin and the ease with which she counteracts Kristin’s scathing remarks with kindness are perhaps largely down to her Christian beliefs – yet another thing Kristin scoffs at.

Later, we meet Claire (understudy, Isaura Barbé-Brown), Simon’s soap star girlfriend. Instantaneously, we realise she’s another of Kristin’s favourite targets for criticism, although she holds her ground much better than Trudi can, accustomed to tackling her barbs.

Simon (also Joseph Millson), thinner skinned than brother Peter, fails to join his family and flamboyant dinner guest Hugh (Desmond Barrit), and so the awkwardly entertaining evening continues without him.

For the whole of Act One, it’s clear to see how much Channing revels in delivering Kristin’s most biting blows. At points, she looks out into the audience, smirking or fighting to disguise a laugh; I was often unsure whether she was in character or corpsing during these moments as it could quite easily be either of the two, but I loved them nonetheless.

Millson and Carmichael make a sickeningly sweet couple, as they’re supposed to. Trudi’s habit of adding the word ‘sweetie’ to the end of practically every sentence she says to Peter is intentionally irritating – and if anyone can pull it off, it’s Carmichael and her American inflection.

Barbé-Brown does an incredible job of standing in for Freema Agyeman; playing up to Claire’s penchant for arguing that her show is a serial drama rather than a soap, it’s clear that she has fun with the role. The dynamic between her and Carmichael is interesting to watch, as Claire and Trudi – women of a similar age – couldn’t be much further from each other in attitude and aspirations.

Barrit, the one man humour-mill in this show, is amusing, although the character brings little depth to the tale. Hugh is humorous and he knows it, but he serves no purpose other than to crack jokes and very occasionally act as a glowing reference for Kristin when talk turns to the ‘good old days’, when she was heavily involved in activism and hardly involved in her children’s lives.

Act Two sees a shift in focus as Simon makes an appearance. Downtrodden and depressed, most of the stage time in this act is dedicated to Channing and Millson, as Simon recounts an eventful night when his mother forgot to collect him from a train station in Genoa and an unknown man stepped in to pick up her slack.

A stark contrast to what we’ve seen so far, the Kristin unable to climb down from her high horse has been replaced by an emotionally vulnerable fraction of the version of her we saw just half-an-hour before, and… is that regret we can see in her eyes?

She dabs at a wound on Simon’s arm – the only mothering thing she’s done for the duration of the play – anxious for him to reach the end of that story because, if the man at the station did indeed cause him harm, she’s unsure whether she’ll ever be able to forgive herself.

The perfect balance between comedy and drama, Apologia is an honourable piece of theatre – and it’s not only the cast that makes it so. The set was one of the things I loved most about this show. Carefully crafted by Soutra Gilmour, the countryside kitchen is beautifully British and has a way of drawing you right in and making you feel at home. Sitting in the front two rows, you almost feel as though you’re a guest at Kristin’s birthday dinner.

The lighting and sound only add to the ambience, too – the soft light emitted from the fridge during the opening scene adds intrigue, as we are introduced to Channing’s character incompletely, whereas the harsh rainfall against the back of the set makes good use of pathetic fallacy.

All in all, I found Channing’s return to the West End after some 25 years of absence to be a triumphant one. Undoubtedly my favourite performer in the unapologetic Apologia, I for one hope she won’t wait too long before treading the boards on a West End stage once again.

Approx. running time: 2 hours
Understudies: Isaura Barbé-Brown as Claire

Review: Disco Pigs at Trafalgar Studios

“Catching Colin’s eye is somewhat unnerving because, in that moment, it really is difficult to remember that he is not Pig.”


It’s been a while now, since I went to see Evanna Lynch and Colin Campbell in Disco Pigs in Trafalgar Studio 2, but it’s fair to say that it still remains at the forefront of my mind.

First of all, let’s set the scene: Studio 2 is an incredibly intimate venue, with the capacity to hold just 98 people in the audience. Studio 2 has no stage – it’s merely a dark room, and those sat in the front row (as I was), literally have the performers just centimetres away from them. Let’s refer to it as ‘spitting distance away’ since, yes, I did actually get some spit on me at one point during the performance. I wonder if that counts as audience participation..?

An intense setting for an intense play. Perfect.

Once I’d become accustomed to feeling as though I was back in drama class at school (in terms of proximity to the actors, not their acting abilities), I next had to acclimatise myself to the accent and dialect used in the show.

To give a little background, Disco Pigs tells the story of two inseparable friends, born on the same day in the same hospital and raised in Cork, Ireland. So close are they, that they’ve created their own language, which certainly renders it a challenge making sense of the dialogue for the first 15 to 20 minutes of the show.

Just turned 17, ‘Pig’ and ‘Runt’ venture outside of the universe they’ve created inside their heads for the first time to the world of disco, and in no time at all, we witness them spiral out of control.

In their new-found world of disco and drink, they party like tomorrow is never going to come, revelling in a game whereby Runt seeks attention from other men before Pig marches over, acting the affronted boyfriend and confronting each man who has fallen prey to their manipulation.

Perhaps predictably, Pig’s fierce protectiveness over the girl he has grown up with turns to feelings of romance. When they finally make it to the Palace Disco – the one Runt has set her heart on – the latter is surprised to find herself enjoying attention from a certain male, all thoughts of game-playing forgotten. Pig, however, doesn’t realise it’s game over, and he can never come back from the result of his actions that follow.

Marking the 20th anniversary of the production’s British debut, both roles were impeccably cast. Evanna’s very aura makes her an intriguing figure to watch on stage, and she immerses herself in this role with clear passion and thirst to explore the character. Her vacant expressions combined with the strong delivery of her lines make the character as baffling as I assume she was meant to be. As an audience member, you wouldn’t be alone in wanting to be able to read Runt’s mind, simply because she is that eccentric.

With Colin, it couldn’t have been more obvious that he gave his all to the performance – the evidence was there to see, from the wild glint in his eye, to the sweat pouring down his face. While he and Evanna both make frequent eye contact with audience members, catching Colin’s eye is somewhat unnerving because, in that moment, it really is difficult to remember that he is not Pig. With his outbursts of anger, it feels dangerous to be in his presence, and I’m sure the audience member who had to move hastily out of the way when he sent a prop flying can account for that!

For a show with such basic production values – think minimal props and set, no special effects, just disco lighting and blaring music – Disco Pigs has an incredible way of drawing you right in and rendering you unable to look away. Although moments in the show lack clarity and leave you feeling confused, the enjoyment remains, and I for one left Trafalgar Studios wondering what the hell I’d just witnessed.

Approx. running time: 1 hour, no interval
Understudies: none