Jenny Hayes enters the macabre and magical world of The Grinning Man at Bristol Old Vic

It’s Bristol, but not as we know it. Even before I’ve set foot inside the UK’s oldest working theatre there’s something a little off kilter, and it sets the scene for the night ahead.

Instead of sweeping through the grand Georgian entrance on King Street, the audience is ushered down an insalubrious looking alleyway and into the bowels of the historic theatre. Backstage in the paint shop, a cavernous warehouse space whose walls whisper with stories of the past, the crowd swells with conviviality as staff circulate, their faces painted white with a smudge of crimson lipstick that is half humorous, half horrific. We’ve entered the Rabelaisian world of the carnival, and it’s at once wonderful and disconcerting.

This feeling is heightened as we take our seats in the auditorium, where the visual motif of the ruined smile stretches to frame the stage and cut a jagged scar into the walls on either side. Against the opulent gold theatre rose and the luxurious green velvet seating, it represents the first of many strokes of genius from set designer Jon Bausor that transform Bristol Old Vic into the sumptuous, gothic world of The Grinning Man.

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Patrycja Kujawska (Angelica), Audrey Brisson (Dea), Louis Maskell (Grinpayne), Julian Bleach (Barkilphedro), Gloria Onitiri (Josiana)

Based on Victor Hugo’s epic novel, L’Homme Qui Rit, this original production is set in Bristol past, and tells the story of Grinpayne, a young man whose face is mutilated as a child, leaving him with a permanent ‘grin’. As he navigates a world still rife with the pride and greed that tainted his early life, a tale unfolds of tragedy, beauty, and dark hilarity.

Louis Maskell brings a touching vulnerability and innocence to the role of Grinpayne – a remarkable feat given his face is semi obscured throughout the performance. It is impossible not to empathise with his bewilderment at the strange world around him, which is in so many ways a disturbing echo of our own changing times.

Notable among the rest of a very strong cast is Audrey Brisson, enchanting as Grinpayne’s love interest Dea, and Gloria Onitiri who is a sensation as the hedonistic Duchess Josiana. But it is Julian Bleach who steals the show as the deliciously Machiavellian jester Barkilphedro, delivering his lines with a wry wit and whip sharp timing that keeps the audience dangling on his every word.

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Audrey Brisson (Dea) Louis Maskell (Grinpayne) with Young Grinpayne puppet by Gyre & Gimble

Exceptional puppetry by Gyre and Gimble adds another dimension to the performance. At the start of the play, the puppet incarnations of a young Grinpayne and Dea immerse the audience in a childlike world of make-believe and fable. The puppet masters also claim best entrance of the night, when Mojo the wolf pounces onto the stage in a savage tangle of sinew and matted grey fur. Then, under the skilled hands of the puppeteers, this wild creature morphs into such a gentle beast that I defy any dog owners not to be reminded of their own domestic pooch back at home.

A nod must also go to the phenomenal script. Written by Carl Grose, it is laden with visceral language that conjures up this dystopian version of Bristol in all its graphic glory. Juxtaposed with musical numbers ranging from spine-chilling chants to uplifting showstoppers that resound round the theatre and make your heart soar, it makes for an enthralling combination.

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Gloria Onitiri (Josiana), Sean Kingsley, Stuart Neal (Dirry Moir), Patrycja Kujawska (Queen Angelica)

This play walks the fine line between light and dark, horror and humanity with fluidity and grace. Daring, shocking, but always on point, Tom Morris has brought Bristol Old Vic’s 250 year celebrations to a close with a blinding piece of contemporary theatre.

Roll up, roll up, The Grinning Man has come to town, and you’d be a fool not to go and marvel at it for yourself.

The Grinning Man is running at Bristol Old Vic until Sunday 13 November. Performances are at 7.30pm, with Saturday matinees at 2.30pm. Tickets: £9.50 – £32, available from the box office on tel: 0117 987 7877 or visit: bristololdvic.org.uk

Photography credit: Simon Annand