Musical review: The Grinning Man, Alex Theatre

A number of miscalculations may make you grimace instead of grin in the Australian premiere of this British musical.
The Grinning Man. A huddle of seven young actors in vaguely Victorian/Edwardian clothing grasp and peer over each other with manically grinning faces.

The Grinning Man is a strange and obscure recent British musical. The original production played at the Bristol Old Vic in 2016 before transferring to the West End the following year. That production featured a dark atmospheric design and incorporated imaginative puppetry and special make-up effects. It was subsequently broadcast on YouTube in 2020 and a cast recording was also released.

The producers of this Australian premiere have taken a gamble presenting this show and unfortunately it hasn’t quite paid off. This relentless and overlong production has moments of vocal excitement and a thrilling central performance, but struggles to create an effective atmosphere or highlight the nuance and poignancy of the piece.     

Based on Victor Hugo’s 1869 novel The Man Who Laughs, this slice of gothic melodrama has shades of The Phantom of the Opera, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Sweeney Todd. The tragically disfigured Grinpayne (Maxwell Simon) leaves an exploitative sideshow world behind to search through the grimy streets of 18th century London to find the person who maimed him as a child and to unlock the secrets of his mysterious past. On his journey he finds love with childhood sweetheart Dea (Luisa Scrofani) and becomes entangled in the debaucherous machinations of the royal aristocracy.

The discordant score by Tim Phillips and Marc Teitler features harpsichord heavy dirges with challenging harmonies in a Tom Waits/Danny Elfman style. There are several beautiful melancholy lullabies, especially in the duets for Grinpayne and Dea, but eventually the score becomes repetitive and tiresome.

The lyrics by Carl Grose, Tom Morris, Phillips and Teitler have moments of wit and charm, but again become undone by constant repetition. Grose’s book scenes work better, especially in the eloquent prose spoken by the creepy jester Barkilphedro (Jennifer Vuletic).

The Grinning Man is ripe with atmospheric potential. The setting and plot call for misty murkiness, dark shadows and ghoulish garishness, but the design of this production is bizarrely bland and bright. The main set is a large cream-coloured structure pockmarked with little windows, doorways and curtains. A few light bulbs frame the stage, and a large dark blanket is awkwardly dragged on from the wings at a few points for no discernible reason.

The costume design aims for a blend of classic and contemporary, a trope we’ve seen way too much of recently, but doesn’t fully succeed in either respect. The set and costumes look very basic and don’t effectively reflect the grim and eerie nature of the story; it’s a disappointment and a missed opportunity. 

Speaking of missed opportunities, the opening scenes of the musical act as a show within a show, telling the audience of Grinpayne’s tragic past and how he came to meet Dea. The book specifically calls for this section to employ puppets for these characters, but this production does not have any. Instead, we get actors being moved around the stage “acting” as passive “puppets”. It’s one of a handful of perplexing directorial choices. 

The cast are a mix of new and seasoned performers, and they all throw themselves enthusiastically into their roles. Simon and Scrofani deliver passionate performances and their electrifying voices are more than up to the vocal challenges the score throws at them. Melanie Bird and Anthony Craig are very funny as the incestuous royal siblings, and Dom Hennequin brings a lovely sense of poignancy to the fatherly role of Ursus. 

The problem is this talented cast seem to have been directed to deliver aggressively over-the-top performances; they come screaming out of the gate and hardly ever stop for breath over the course of two-and-a-half hours. This production leans hard into bawdy comedy and serious drama with equal velocity, resulting in few moments of light and shade and a loss of sincerity. There’s a lack of equilibrium and by the end of the show several cast members were very vocally fatigued.

Vuletic, however, manages to find this elusive sense of balance in her performance as Barkilphedro. She is demonic, dry, dangerous and delightful whenever she is on stage and her accomplished delivery of the text coupled with her exceptional rapport with the audience delivers beacons of brilliance throughout.

Read: Theatre review: The Woman in Black, QPAC

The creators of this production of The Grinning Man have bitten off more than they can chew. It’s a curious piece that has the potential to be a macabre and moving musical experience; unfortunately this version of the show may leave you grimacing rather than grinning. 

The Grinning Man
The Alex Theatre, Melbourne
Book by Carl Grose
Music by Tim Phillips and Marc Teitler
Lyrics by Carl Grose, Tom Morris, Tim Phillips and Marc Teitler

Director: Miranda Middleton
Musical Director: David Youings
Choreographer: Freya List
Set and Costume Designer: Sophie Woodward
Lighting Designer: Aron Murray
Sound Designer: Ash Armitt
Sound System Designer: Luminous Entertainment

Cast: Cameron Bajraktarevic-Hayward, Melanie Bird, Lilly Cascun, Anthony Craig, Shelley Dunlop, Matthew Hearne, Dom Hennequin, Stephanie Astrid John, Luke Leong-Tay, Luisa Scrofani, Maxwell Simon, Jennifer Vuletic, Angelo Vasilakakos, Olivia Charalambous, Jessie Monk

The Grinning Man will be performed until 19 May 2024.

Reuben Liversidge is based in Melbourne. He has trained in music theatre at the VCA, film and theatre at LaTrobe University, and currently works as Head Talent Agent for the Talent Company of Australia.