For one week only, in peak lockdown late-May, a rare archive recording of ‘The Grinning Man’ was streamed on the small-screen via Bristol Old Vic’s YouTube channel. I clicked play on a whim and haven’t stopped thinking about it since.
This unexpectedly macabre musical tells the best kind of fairytale – chilling to the core and hauntingly romantic. You are made witness to the tale of a tortured young man, Grinpayne (Louis Maskell), and his desire to seek revenge on the unknown figure who cut a permanent ‘grin’ into his face as a child. With an emotive score dripping in gothic tension – from music box chimes to eerily sliding violins – and enchanting puppetry from the visionaries behind ‘War Horse’ (Gyre & Gimble), this was the digital revival I didn’t know I needed.
Although first performed in 2016, and based on an 1869 Victor Hugo novel, ‘The Grinning Man’ felt as though it was somehow destined to belong in the bizarre apocalyptic fog of 2020. Not only does Grinpayne sport a grisly face-mask of sorts, but the whole production felt like a self-aware homage to live performance and collaboration. With theatres shut nationwide, it was somewhat heart-breaking to watch this meta-musical (puppets puppeteering puppets, and so on), that buzzed with the cathartic energy of both theatre-watching and theatre-making, restricted to pixels on a screen.
The opening lines of the show are directed to the audience by an ominously slimy tragicomic clown, Barkilphedro, played by stand-out performer Julian Bleach. Reaching out across the ether into our homes, the clown speaks to what many of us were craving from the arts during lockdown – connection, escapism and a renewed sense of optimism:
‘And so here we find ourselves gathered once again to worship at the altar of sweet distraction – prepare yourself for a tale so utterly horrid and yet so strangely uplifting that all your earthly woes will be riddled with worms of unspeakable joy.’
Sometimes feel-good, split-screen singalongs aren’t going to cut it. ‘The Grinning Man’ is one of those raw, sharp shows that arrives at just the right moment, and it impacted me in a profound and personal way. Its songs of hope and horror have become the soundtrack to the most surreal summer.