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Photography by Ben Fon | Fon Photography | fon.com.au

The Grinning Man (Alex Theatre) – musical theatre review

The bawdy meets the bizarre in the Australian premiere of the tragicomic musical The Grinning Man, which is based on the 1869 Victor Hugo novel The Man Who Laughs. He is, of course, best known for Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. With music by Tim Phillips and Marc Teitler, lyrics by that pair, Carl Grose and Tom Morris, and book by Grose, the musical has a distinct fairy tale/pantomime feel to it.

Photos by Ben Fon

The story concerns a young British nobleman named Grinpayne who was grossly disfigured as a child when not yet aged 10 in an ugly incident that he can’t recall. As a result, he is forced to live with a mutilated face, which has the look of a permanent grin. On the terrible, bitterly cold night that he was maimed, Grinpayne also rescued a baby who was at the point of death, a blind infant named Dea. The pair is brought up by their adoptive father Ursus, who makes money from Grinpayne at a freak show style fair.

Meanwhile, Grinpayne and Dea grow ever closer and develop strong romantic feelings for one another. In constant pain – both physical and emotional – Grinpayne is prized with a “tonic” by Ursus to dull the ache. In truth, by so doing, Ursus is hiding a dark secret, with Grinpayne increasingly desperate to find out who perpetrated the dastardly deed on him and why. Twenty years on the truth will out and there will be hell to pay.

Streaked with black humour, The Grinning Man is part Gothic horror and part swashbuckling adventure, having played to acclaim in London’s West End. While it debuted in the UK in October 2016, this marks its Australian premiere. The undoubted standout is Jennifer Vuletic, who plays the clown narrator, a character known as Barkilphedro. Complete with ghostly makeup and vagabond clothing, she snarls and snipes with alacrity throughout. Hers is a grand, “look at me” performance, which brings with it howls of laughter.

But exaggeration and grand gestures are the name of the game not just for Vuletic, but for the characters that constitute the royal family. They make quite the entrance thanks to clever set design by Sophie Woodward, who is also responsible for the evocative costuming. Among them, with sharpened comic sensibilities, Melanie Bird stands out as the “horny” Princess Josiana and Anthony Craig as the layabout Lord Dirry-Moir. In fact, it is he who sets off the chain of events when he is enamoured by Grinpayne at the freak show.

A high point is the adept hand puppetry of Cameron Bajraktarevic-Hayward, who doubles as the show’s cellist. His “wolf” is an ever-present force in the devilishness that plays out. A nice touch to the production is that the action doesn’t just take place on the stage, but immediately in front of it, while characters also walk down the aisle. The opening night audience was most receptive to the ribald theatrics integral to the piece. There appeared to be heartfelt appreciation of the hijinks, merriment and mayhem.

Although broad-minded, I felt the strident use of the “f” word was overplayed. While it was certainly funny at first, less would have been more. The Grinning Man has built a cult following in the UK, but I can’t say I greatly warmed to it. Perhaps a second look is warranted to see if I can “catch the fever”. I struggled with the storytelling in the first half, but fortunately that was straightened out after interval. I didn’t find the songs all that melodic or ear-pleasing and the sound mix wasn’t right.

I thought the show was stretched at two and a half hours, including a 20-minute interval. Still, I expect it to win plenty of admirers. Directed by Miranda Middleton, it is on at Alex Theatre until 19th May, 2024.

Alex First

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