The Grinning Man

The Grinning Man Maxwell Simon photo by Ben FonMany works by the prolific Romantic French writer Victor Hugo (1802-1885) have inspired musical adaptation. As recent as 2016, his 1869 novel, L’Homme qui rit (The Man Who Laughs), became the latest to take on musical form as The Grinning Man when it premiered at Bristol Old Vic before hitting London’s West End the following year.

With a book by Carl Grose, lyrics also by Grose with Tom Morris and co-composers Tim Phillips and Marc Teitler, the work reflects recurring themes found in Hugo’s writings which remain timeless and relevant today. 

It is with good fortune that an Australian premiere, presented by Salty Theatre and Vass Productions, is introducing the work to local audiences in a season that bodes well at St Kilda’s Alex Theatre. 

Inconceivable love, unleashed jealousies and societal inequality, along with its injustices and hypocrisies, feature large in Hugo’s thematics where courageousness overcomes the physical and/or circumstantial grotesque. 

We see the complicated injustice in Hugo’s five-act play of 1832, Le roi s’amuseconcerning a hunch-backed court jester to become the basis for Verdi’s operatic masterpiece, Rigolettoand again, in Hugo’s intriguing Gothic novel published in 1831, Notre-Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre-Damewhich has received multiple musical incarnations. And, of course, the themes resonate deeply in his thrilling 1862 novel that lives on through the hugely popular 1980 premiered musical, Les Misérables.

The Cast of The Grinning Man photo by Ben FonThis two-act tragicomedy with its densely packed but easily comprehensible plot centres on the horribly disfigured Grinpayne. A childhood victim of political violence who loses the bottom half of his face to a blade, Grinpayne is adopted by the puppeteer and druggist Ursus to become a freakshow attraction at London’s Trafalgar Fair and falls in love with the blind Dea – the infant he rescued from the arms of her dead mother and who, as his adoptive sister, appears in Ursus’ act.

Grinpayne gets the attentions of a dysfunctional royal family and the court clown (and the show’s emcee) Barkilphedro – he a firecracker conduit between the comical shenanigans of the royals and the unshakable romance of the young freakshow performers. 

With numerous enlightening facts revealed along the way, it’s perfect fodder for theatrical panache and is elevated irresistibly by witty and painterly lyrics and tempered by a melodic and moodily schizophrenic score that provides overall appeal and sensibility.

Under Miranda Middleton’s mostly solid direction as part of a lean-looking production – Sophie Woodward’s loosely referenced early 20th century Expressionistic set and theatrically contrasted, period-spanning costume designs create a well-blended whole – a cast of 12 do a splendid job at igniting the stage and detailing their parts convincingly.

Jennifer Vuletic as Barkilphedro in The Grinning Man - photo by Ben FonAmongst an assortment of zany characters, the prize crown goes to Jennifer Vuletic for her incredible turn as the desperate and dastardly clown, Barkilphedro. Vuletic relishes the role – a male role originally performed by Julian Bleach – as she entertainingly engages with and manipulates her audience while licking and dripping her lyrics with delightful flair and creepiness. 

As the story’s eponymous hero representing the grotesque exerting effect for change, Maxwell Simon commendably captures the essence of Grinpayne’s heartfelt feelings for Dea and the long-aching desire to know the identity of his assailant. 

Simon, warm and flexibly voiced, is equally matched by Luisa Scrofani as Dea who very much blossoms in the second act into a confidently voiced figure and, together with Simon, creates a powerful presence rendered with endearing subtlety. 

Matthew Hearne and Lilly Cascun, as the young Grinpayne and Dea make their moments memorable despite the confusion in their first act introduction while their older counterparts are at their side. 

Melanie Bird as Princess Josiana and Anthony Craig as Lord Dirry-Moir in The Grinning Man photo by Ben FonRoyal siblings, the nymphomaniac Princess Josiana (Melanie Bird), the wildly camp Lord Dirry-Moir (Anthony Craig) and loopy but compassionate Queen Angelica (Stephanie Astrid John) are a riotous hoot and all hit high notes and comic timing with aplomb.

As the well-intentioned Ursus, Dom Hennequin does the most with a part that musically could dig deeper. Nevertheless, music director, conductor and keyboard player David Youings and his 5 players make a wonderfully rich and textured sound start to finish that belies the nature of the band’s size. And sound quality comes across with crystal clarity.

The Grinning Man is certain to rouse audiences, it comes with a good helping of thought-provoking concepts without feeling too icky – although exultations of Grinpayne’s messianic-like transformation could be dispensed with – and the cast is sure to win you over from the moment they convince you with their Act 1 romp, Laughter Is The Best Medicine

The Grinning Man
Alex Theatre St Kilda, 1/135 Fitzroy Street, St Kilda
Performance: Thursday 2 May 2024
Season continues to 19 May 2024
Information and Bookings:

Images: Maxwell Simon as Grinpayne – photo by Ben Fon | The Cast of The Grinning Man – photo by Ben Fon | Jennifer Vuletic as Barkilphedro – photo by Ben Fon | Melanie Bird as Princess Josiana and Anthony Craig as Lord Dirry-Moir – photo by Ben Fon

Review: Paul Selar