Facial or physical deformity is no stranger to art. Going way back to Shakespeare’s Caliban in The Tempest, the struggles of the mutilated to overcome their misshapen bodies and grotesque faces have resulted in a trenchant output of novels, plays and films as affecting today as they were when first conceived. The most durable include the many incarnations of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Phantom of the Opera, Beauty and the Beast, Tod Browning’s 1932 shocker Freaks, Frankenstein (and its numerous variations), George Cukor’s A Woman’s Face (1941), David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980), Peter Bogdanovich’s Mask (1985) and most recently Steven Chbosky’s Wonder (2017).
One of the earliest examples of a man suffering the emotional and physical agonies of facial deformity was Victor Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs, which he wrote in 1869 and which tells the story of a young boy called Grinpayne, who, as the victim of some political skullduggery, has his mouth hideously slashed by an unknown attacker, leaving him with a permanent rictus he conceals with a cloth. Using this as the basis for their new musical, The Grinning Man, originally staged at the Bristol Old Vic, director Tom Morris, writer Carl Grose, and composers Tom Philips and Marc Teitler put a caricatural gothic spin on the novel, setting it in a Trafalgar Square fairground where Grinpayne has found employment as a freak show attraction run by a puppeteer called Ursus (Sean Kinglsey), his adoptive father. Also living with them is Ursus’ pet Wolf-Dog (Loren O’Dair) and his beautiful daughter Dea (Sanne den Besten), whom he adopted after her mother was drowned in a shipwreck. Unsurprisingly, Grinpayne (Louis Maskell) and Dea fall in love.
Puppetry plays a large part in the production. Having had a massive success with War Horse, Morris has once again joined forces with puppeteers Finn Caldwell and Tobi Olie, who help animate both Grinpayne and Dea as children, as well as Wolf-Dog. Coming so close on the heels of the National’s Pinocchio, which also relies on puppetry for many of its effects, there is a sense of déjà vu here. And John Bausor’s designs are redolent of Beowulf Borritt’s for Young Frankenstein, now ensconced at the Garrick.
The show’s message – that beauty is only skin deep and that surface appearances are often misleading – hardly comes as a revelation. However, the plot is pretty deceptive, especially in the lengthy second half. Nothing is what it appears to be. Social injustice (one of Hugo’s signature themes) permeates a text that veers uneasily between tragedy and comedy. And aristocracy, as represented by the incestuous sex-obsessed Princess Josiana (Amanda Wilkin) and Prince Dirry-Moir (Mark Anderson), are easy targets for ridicule. There’s also a dastardly, deliciously conniving clown called Barkilphedro, played with oodles of relish by the excellent Julian Bleach.
A fully committed cast of 16 does its best to liven an uneven score, with "Labyrinth" and "Stars in the Sky" the standout numbers. Morris’ direction keeps the action on the move until the last 20 minutes, when the complexity of the plot and its eventual unravelling had me looking at my watch. The rest of the audience embraced it all unconditionally.