Review of 'The Grinning Man'


Based on “The Man Who Laughs” by Victor Hugo, The Grinning Man is an enjoyable and amazing piece of theatre.

We are first introduced to the court-jester character of “Barkilphedro” (Julian Bleach) who serves as narrator of the show but who goes on to become an integral part of the story as he slinks about over and under the stage. An unusual act has come to the “Trafalgar Fair” in “Lonnn'donn” - Grinpayne (Louis Maskell) is a man with a hideous scar giving him a perpetual “grin” that visitors can pay to see. But who Grinpayne and where has he come from? We learn as a young boy he was tragically separated from his mother then rescues a baby, Dea, during a snowstorm. Taken in by a sympathetic showman over the years the blind girl Dea (Sanne Den Besten) falls in love with her rescuer. Part of a show at Trafalgar Fair, Grinpayne becomes an obsession of the spoiled Princess Josiana (Amanda Wilkin) who in her desire for earthly pleasure seeks to make him her own. Grinpayne is torn between his love of Dea and the life that Josiana can give him…Will he make the right choice?

I am not sure where to start here. This is simply fabulous theatre. Let's start with the staging: The entire theatre is done up to look like a travelling show complete with lights running the length of the auditorium and performers often coming out into the audience as the plot progresses. This immersive experience continues with the semi-circular stage that extends into the audience. The use of incredibly convincing puppets telling the early story of Grinpayne a la “War Horse” with no attempt at hiding the puppeteers on stage (not too surprising given that several of those involved were from this other show). There is ingenious use of a central piece of scenery that serves as the caravan that Grinpayne lives in only to revolve and be the bedroom of the Princess.

The first half gives us the background information we need with the second half very quickly getting to the heart of the action though I did find it slightly confusing keeping track of everything. The story is compelling and sad. Certainly not a Disney show “The Grinning Man” is complex and engaging stuff.

There are numerous musical numbers (24, all told) with depth and clarity that is sublime helped by tremendous performances by all involved. Despite wearing a mask throughout Maskell as Grinpayne certainly manages to get his voice heard, easily reaching all corners of the auditorium, and Beston as Dea shows nuance and compassion throughout. The over the top Barkilphedro (Bleach) often ends up stealing the show with his ironic and sardonic musings though ultimately is pitiable and tragic. The music is moody and quirky, suiting the material to a T: Think deep, dark folk.

To be sure, this is not a kid's show with it's seriously dark plot (though perhaps not the darkest, Sweeney Todd this isn't) and it does tend to drag a bit in the middle but “The Grinning Man” is an incredible piece of stagecraft and is not to be missed.

Rating: “Nearly perfect, but not quite”

Review Date: 2018-04-21

Trafalgar Studios

Location: London (England)

Address: 14 Whitehall London SW1A 3DY ENGLAND

Public Transport: TUBE Charing Cross

Telephone: +44 (0) 207 321 5400


A small theatre located a short distance from the other theatre's of the West End just south of Trafalgar Square on Whitehall (towards Westminster). A much more experimental venue than most with two fairly informal and relatively small performance studios putting on shows that are a bit more niche than most. The small lobby has stairs leading to the studios and a large bar area in the basement.